During the lifetime of the National Science Foundation's Coastal Ocean Processes program, four experiments were conducted on the US West Coast in the northern California Current System. Although each project had a unique scientific focus, all four addressed the mechanisms causing eastern boundary current systems in general, and the California Current System in particular, to be biologically rich, from phytoplankton to apex predators. Taken together, findings from these projects provide new insights into the canonical view that upwelling systems are simple wind-driven "conveyor belts," bringing cold, nutrient-rich waters to the well-lit surface ocean where biological organisms flourish. We highlight new insights and advances gained from these programs, including recognition that (a) elements other than nitrogen, particularly iron, may limit the base of the food chain, and (b) the source of these nutrients is not solely a result of wind-driven Ekman transport. The importance of retentive features has clearly emerged, whether these are associated with topography, bathymetry, or more transient features such as river plumes. These new insights into the drivers and fate of this high biological productivity should greatly improve current and future generations of ecosystem models and provide a better understanding of the unique physical-biological coupling that makes the California Current System so rich.
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