Atmosphere and Oceans Finely Balanced

The atmosphere and oceans exist in a delicate state of balance according to research co-ordinated by the University of East Anglia (UEA) and published this month by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

The recently completed five year research programme of Atmospheric Chemistry Studies in the Oceanic Environment (ACSOE) concludes that atmospheric pollution travels much further than previously thought and that this has important consequences for global chemistry and climate.

“The programme found that atmospheric chemicals interact with the ocean web of life in a profound way, such as gases being emitted that help regulate atmospheric conditions and the supply of essential elements such as selenium transported from the oceans to the land,” said Dr Bill Sturges of UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences, the research programme’s Project Manager.

Chemical processes associated with cloud formation and distribution were found to be much more affected by pollution than previously thought and these findings will be important in ensuring that global climate models are as up to date and accurate as possible.

One of the projects carried out as part of the ACSOE programme investigated how trace metals are carried off the European continent by south-easterly winds and are deposited in the north-east Atlantic Ocean.

“Even though the predominant airflow over the north-east Atlantic is relatively clean and westerly, when south-easterly wind does occur it brings with it significant amounts of manmade trace metal pollution – manganese, lead and zinc – which has been picked up over Europe’s heavily populated and industrial regions,” said Dr Lucinda Spokes of UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences.

“These pollutants, which travel hundreds of miles, have an important impact on the marine plant life when they are deposited in the ocean. Some act as nutrients for marine plants known as phytoplankton, while others are highly toxic to them.”

The ACSOE programme carried out research in three main areas:

  • air-sea exchange, for example gases produced by marine microorganisms;
  • the chemistry responsible for ‘cleansing’ the lower atmosphere of pollutants; and
  • development of clouds and fine airborne particles, or aerosols, in European air during transport over the Atlantic Ocean.

Further research is needed to improve scientific understanding of the intricate relationships between air quality, ocean productivity, climate and indeed human health.

The complete programme findings and conclusions are published this month in ACSOE: Achievements and Scientific Highlights.

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