Each year, long-distance winds drop up to 900 million tons of dust from deserts and other parts of the land into the oceans. Scientists suspect this phenomenon connects to global climate—but exactly how, remains a question.
Now a big piece of the puzzle has fallen into place, with a study showing that the amount of dust entering the equatorial Pacific peaks sharply during repeated ice ages, then declines when climate warms. The researchers say it cements the theory that atmospheric moisture, and thus dust, move in close step with temperature on a global scale; the finding may in turn help inform current ideas to seed oceans with iron-rich dust in order to mitigate global warming. The study appears in the Feb. 28 edition of Science Express, the advance online edition of the leading journal Science.
In the past decade, scientists have documented similar dust peaks in polar ice cores, and in sediments from the Atlantic and Indian oceans, but records from Pacific were contradictory. Now that all the records have been shown to coincide, “it suggests that the whole world hydrologic cycle varies in unison, on a pretty rapid time scale,” said Gisela Winckler, a geochemist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and lead author of the paper.
“It gives us the information from where it matters—where people live, and where the real engine of climate probably lies.” Changes in the atmosphere over the Pacific, and the tropics in general, are thought to affect huge areas of the world.
The researchers studied cores of seafloor sediment representing 500,000 years of deposition, spanning about 6,000 miles of the Pacific equator, from near Papua New Guinea to near Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands—nearly a quarter of the globe’s girth. In each, they found the same thing: at the height of each of five known ice ages, accumulation of the isotope thorium 232, a tracer for land dust, shot up 2.5 times over the level of warmer “interglacial” times.
The peaks appear about every 100,000 years, with the last one at 20,000 years ago—culmination of the last glacial age. Through other isotopes, the scientists traced the dust on the western side to Asia, and that on the eastern side to South America. The reasons for the lockstep peaks are probably complex, but in general scientists say that colder air holds less moisture than warmer air, and that cold periods tend to be windier; this means both dustier land, and more dust getting blown away.
The dust probably helped make climate even colder for a while, and this has implications for the current day, said Robert F. Anderson, head of Lamont-Doherty’s geochemistry division and a coauthor. Many types of dust transported at high altitudes tend to reflect sunlight, thus lowering the energy reaching earth, said Anderson. And, when it settles into the ocean, there could be an intriguing further effect. Rich in the plant nutrient iron, the dust could have fertilized near-surface plankton on a massive scale.
Like other plants, plankton uses the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide for photosynthesis; thus, theoretically, fertilization could have caused the ocean to take larger amounts of CO2 from the air, and entomb it in the ocean. Lowering of atmospheric CO2 in turn would reduce the air’s capacity to hold heat—the opposite of what is currently happening, as the globe warms due to elevated CO2 levels from burning of fossil fuels and other human activities.
Lately, a growing number of scientists have been advocating research to see if massive, manmade iron fertilization of the oceans might induce such blooms, and thus mitigate warming. A dozen early experiments in different regions have shown that plankton growth increases when iron is artificially added, but scientists have yet to show that this could lock significant amounts of CO2 into the ocean; carbon from the plants would have to sink to the bottom for this to happen. “The new data gives us a natural experiment to see what might have happened in the past,” said Winckler. The researchers’ next step will be to analyze their cores for signs of such sunken carbon during the ice ages; they hope to do this within a year or two.
Anderson and Winckler caution that the idea of iron fertilization remains deeply complex and controversial. “Assessing the past response to natural variability of iron will enable scientists to develop more quantitative predictions about the possible efficacy of adding it ourselves in the future,” said Winckler.
Kevin Krajick | EurekAlert!
In times of climate change: What a lake’s colour can tell about its condition
21.09.2017 | Leibniz-Institut für Gewässerökologie und Binnenfischerei (IGB)
Did marine sponges trigger the ‘Cambrian explosion’ through ‘ecosystem engineering’?
21.09.2017 | Helmholtz-Zentrum Potsdam - Deutsches GeoForschungsZentrum GFZ
Plants and algae use the enzyme Rubisco to fix carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere and converting it into biomass. Algae have figured out a way to increase the efficiency of carbon fixation. They gather most of their Rubisco into a ball-shaped microcompartment called the pyrenoid, which they flood with a high local concentration of carbon dioxide. A team of scientists at Princeton University, the Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford University and the Max Plank Institute of Biochemistry have unravelled the mysteries of how the pyrenoid is assembled. These insights can help to engineer crops that remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while producing more food.
A warming planet
Our brains house extremely complex neuronal circuits, whose detailed structures are still largely unknown. This is especially true for the so-called cerebral cortex of mammals, where among other things vision, thoughts or spatial orientation are being computed. Here the rules by which nerve cells are connected to each other are only partly understood. A team of scientists around Moritz Helmstaedter at the Frankfiurt Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and Helene Schmidt (Humboldt University in Berlin) have now discovered a surprisingly precise nerve cell connectivity pattern in the part of the cerebral cortex that is responsible for orienting the individual animal or human in space.
The researchers report online in Nature (Schmidt et al., 2017. Axonal synapse sorting in medial entorhinal cortex, DOI: 10.1038/nature24005) that synapses in...
Whispering gallery mode (WGM) resonators are used to make tiny micro-lasers, sensors, switches, routers and other devices. These tiny structures rely on a...
Using ultrafast flashes of laser and x-ray radiation, scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (Garching, Germany) took snapshots of the briefest electron motion inside a solid material to date. The electron motion lasted only 750 billionths of the billionth of a second before it fainted, setting a new record of human capability to capture ultrafast processes inside solids!
When x-rays shine onto solid materials or large molecules, an electron is pushed away from its original place near the nucleus of the atom, leaving a hole...
For the first time, physicists have successfully imaged spiral magnetic ordering in a multiferroic material. These materials are considered highly promising candidates for future data storage media. The researchers were able to prove their findings using unique quantum sensors that were developed at Basel University and that can analyze electromagnetic fields on the nanometer scale. The results – obtained by scientists from the University of Basel’s Department of Physics, the Swiss Nanoscience Institute, the University of Montpellier and several laboratories from University Paris-Saclay – were recently published in the journal Nature.
Multiferroics are materials that simultaneously react to electric and magnetic fields. These two properties are rarely found together, and their combined...
19.09.2017 | Event News
12.09.2017 | Event News
06.09.2017 | Event News
22.09.2017 | Life Sciences
22.09.2017 | Medical Engineering
22.09.2017 | Physics and Astronomy