Dust tied to climate

This TOMS image shows a record-setting Asian d...

Dust moving in April 2001 from arid areas in Central Asia and North Africa to the oceans. From NASA's Nimbus-7 satellite. Image via Wikipedia

At present the central areas of the oceans are wet deserts; too depleted in nutrients to support the photosynthesising base of a significant foot chain. Oddly, even when commonly known nutrients are brought to the ocean surface far from land by deep-sourced upwellings the effect on near-surface biomass is far from that expected. The key factor that is missing is dissolved divalent iron that acts as a minor nutrient for phytoplankton: even in deep ocean waters any such ferrous iron is quickly oxidised and precipitated as trivalent ferric compounds. One of the suggested means of geoengineering away any future climatic warming is to seed the far-off oceans reaches with soluble iron in the hope of triggering massive planktonic blooms, dead organisms sinking to be buried along with the their carbon content in the ocean-floor oozes. Retrospectively, it has been suggested that the slight mismatch between changes in atmospheric CO2 concentration and climate changes may be linked to fluctuating availability of iron dissolved from dust in ocean-surface waters, but so far that hypothesis has not been robustly tested. It is well known, however, that global cooling is accompanied by drying of continental climates and thereby an increase in the delivery of dust, even to polar ice caps where cores have shown dustiness to fluctuate with temperature.

Recently an ocean-floor sediment core from around 42° S has revealed a high-resolution record of the deposition of dust and iron at that location over the last 4 Ma (Martinez-Garcia, A. et al. 2011. Southern Ocean dust-climate coupling over the past 4 million years. Nature, v. 476, p. 312-315). In it one proxy for dust is the amount of organic compounds known as n-alkanes that are a major component of the waxes shed from plant leaves. Others are iron, titanium and thorium concentrations in the ooze. Dust proxies tally with land-ice volumes shown by the fluctuating d18O measured in bottom-dwelling foraminifera found as fossils in the core to form a convincing link between dust and climate over the Southern Ocean. Those proxies also match nicely the record of dust delivered to Antarctica that emerged from the 0.8 Ma Dome C ice core that was extracted and analysed by the EPICA consortium. The record shows boosts in iron and dust deposition at 2.7 Ma, when ice first took hold of northern high latitudes, and at 1.25 Ma when larger ice sheets began to develop and climate shifts switched to 100 ka cyclicity. Although the match between marine and glacial dust accumulation in the latter part of this mid-Pleistocene Transition is an important step forward in palaeoclimatology, it is a surprise that the new ocean-floor data is not plotted with the record of atmospheric CO2 in Antarctic ice bubbles: if there was a clear relationship that would have iced the cake.

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