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Scientists discover new variability in iron supply to the oceans with climate implications

19.07.2013
The supply of dissolved iron to oceans around continental shelves has been found to be more variable by region than previously believed – with implications for future climate prediction.

Iron is key to the removal of carbon dioxide from the Earth's atmosphere as it promotes the growth of microscopic marine plants (phytoplankton), which mop up the greenhouse gas and lock it away in the ocean.


This image shows a phytoplankton bloom in western South Atlantic Ocean. Credit: NASA

A new study, led by researchers based at the National Oceanography Centre Southampton, has found that the amount of dissolved iron released into the ocean from continental margins displays variability not currently captured by ocean-climate prediction models. This could alter predictions of future climate change because iron, a key micronutrient, plays an important role in the global carbon cycle.

Previously assumed to reflect rates of microbial activity, the study found that the amount of iron leaking from continental margins (the seafloor sediments close to continents) is actually far more varied between regions because of local differences in weathering and erosion on land. The results of the study are published this week in Nature Communications.

"Iron acts like a giant lever on marine life storing carbon," says Dr Will Homoky, lead author and postdoctoral research fellow at University of Southampton Ocean and Earth Science, which is based at the Centre. "It switches on growth of microscopic marine plants, which extract carbon dioxide from our atmosphere and lock it away in the ocean."

Continental margins are a major source of dissolved iron to the oceans and therefore an important factor for climate prediction models. But until now, measurements have only been taken in a limited number of regions across the globe, all of which have been characterised by low oxygen levels and high sedimentation rates. The present study focussed on a region with contrasting environmental conditions – in Atlantic waters off the coast of South Africa.

"We were keen to measure iron from this region because it is so different to areas studied before. The seawater here contains more oxygen, and sediments accumulate much more slowly on the seafloor because the region is drier and geologically less active," says Professor Rachel Mills, co-author at the University of Southampton.

The team found substantially smaller amounts of iron being supplied to seawater than measured anywhere before – challenging preconceptions of iron supply across the globe.

The researchers also identified that there are two different mechanisms by which rocks are dissolving on the seafloor. They did this by measuring the isotopic composition of the iron, using a technique developed with co-authors based at the University of South Carolina.

"We already knew that microbial processes dissolve iron in rocks and minerals," says Dr Homoky, "but now we find that rocks also dissolve passively and release iron to seawater. A bit like sugar dissolving in a cup of tea.

"The fact that we have found a new mechanism makes us question how much iron is leaking out from other areas of the ocean floor. If certain rocks are going to dissolve irrespective of microbial processes, suddenly there are whole regions that might be supplying iron that are presently unaccounted for."

But how much can this one factor really affect changes in the Earth's climate? Dr Homoky explains: "Model simulations indicate that the presence or absence of iron supply from continental margins may be enough to drive Earth's transition between glacial and interglacial periods," he says. "Therefore these findings could certainly have implications for global climate modelling – to what extent, is yet to be determined.

"Our study shows that the amount of iron coming off different margins might vary by up to ten thousand times. In some regions we are probably overestimating – and in others underestimating – the influence of sedimentary iron supply on the ocean's carbon cycle. The goal now is to refine this knowledge to improve ocean-climate models."

The study formed part of the international GEOTRACES programme (http://www.geotraces.org). The UK contribution was funded by the UK's Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), including the two UK-led research expeditions across the Atlantic Ocean.

Notes for editors

1. Reference: Homoky, W. B. et al. Distinct iron isotopic signatures and supply from marine sediment dissolution. Nat. Commun. 4:2143 doi: 10.1038/ncomms3143 (2013).

2. The image shows a satellite-captured view of a productive ocean margin in the western South Atlantic Ocean. Visible milky-blue swirls of ocean colour are blooms of tiny phytoplankton taking up carbon dioxide in the surface ocean. These blooms are caused by ocean currents, which stir nutrient laden waters from the continental margins into the sunlit surface ocean. Rivers, like the South American Río de la Plata or River Plate shown here, are an important source of nutrient-rich material to shelf systems. Credit: NASA http://visibleearth.nasa.gov/view.php?id=75351

3. Dr Will Homoky is a NERC funded Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Southampton, and Professor Rachel Mills is the Principal Investigator at the University of Southampton leading on the NERC funded GEOTRACES programme.

4. GEOTRACES is an international programme, which aims to improve the understanding of biogeochemical cycles and large-scale distribution of chemical elements and their isotopes in the marine environment. Scientists from approximately 35 nations have been involved in the programme, which is designed to study all major ocean basins over the next decade. The UK is leading research efforts in the Atlantic Ocean, with funding provided by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

5. The National Oceanography Centre (NOC) is the UK's leading institution for integrated coastal and deep ocean research. NOC operates the Royal Research Ships James Cook and Discovery and develops technology for coastal and deep ocean research. Working with its partners NOC provides long-term marine science capability including: sustained ocean observing, state-of-the-art numerical ocean models, mapping and surveying, data management and scientific advice.

NOC operates at two sites, Southampton and Liverpool, with the headquarters based in Southampton.

Among the resources that NOC provides on behalf of the UK are the British Oceanographic Data Centre (BODC), the Marine Autonomous and Robotic Systems (MARS) facility, the National Tide and Sea Level Facility (NTSLF), the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level (PSMSL) and British Ocean Sediment Core Research Facility (BOSCORF).

The National Oceanography Centre is wholly owned by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

6. University of Southampton School of Ocean and Earth Science is based at the National Oceanography Centre Southampton.

Contact details

Catherine Beswick, Communications and Public Engagement, National Oceanography Centre, catherine.beswick@noc.ac.uk, +44 238 059 8490

The National Oceanography Centre has an ISDN-enabled radio broadcast studio.

Catherine Beswick | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.noc.ac.uk

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