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!
A Volcanic Binge And Its Frosty Hangover
21.02.2019 | Universität Heidelberg
Researchers get to the bottom of fairy circles
21.02.2019 | Georg-August-Universität Göttingen
An international research team including astronomers from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has combined radio telescopes from five continents to prove the existence of a narrow stream of material, a so-called jet, emerging from the only gravitational wave event involving two neutron stars observed so far. With its high sensitivity and excellent performance, the 100-m radio telescope in Effelsberg played an important role in the observations.
In August 2017, two neutron stars were observed colliding, producing gravitational waves that were detected by the American LIGO and European Virgo detectors....
Up to now, OLEDs have been used exclusively as a novel lighting technology for use in luminaires and lamps. However, flexible organic technology can offer much more: as an active lighting surface, it can be combined with a wide variety of materials, not just to modify but to revolutionize the functionality and design of countless existing products. To exemplify this, the Fraunhofer FEP together with the company EMDE development of light GmbH will be presenting hybrid flexible OLEDs integrated into textile designs within the EU-funded project PI-SCALE for the first time at LOPEC (March 19-21, 2019 in Munich, Germany) as examples of some of the many possible applications.
The Fraunhofer FEP, a provider of research and development services in the field of organic electronics, has long been involved in the development of...
For the first time, an international team of scientists based in Regensburg, Germany, has recorded the orbitals of single molecules in different charge states in a novel type of microscopy. The research findings are published under the title “Mapping orbital changes upon electron transfer with tunneling microscopy on insulators” in the prestigious journal “Nature”.
The building blocks of matter surrounding us are atoms and molecules. The properties of that matter, however, are often not set by these building blocks...
Scientists at the University of Konstanz identify fierce competition between the human immune system and bacterial pathogens
Cell biologists from the University of Konstanz shed light on a recent evolutionary process in the human immune system and publish their findings in the...
Laser physicists have taken snapshots of carbon molecules C₆₀ showing how they transform in intense infrared light
When carbon molecules C₆₀ are exposed to an intense infrared light, they change their ball-like structure to a more elongated version. This has now been...
11.02.2019 | Event News
30.01.2019 | Event News
16.01.2019 | Event News
22.02.2019 | Physics and Astronomy
22.02.2019 | Materials Sciences
22.02.2019 | Life Sciences