Nav: Home

Scientists shed light on the climate-changing desert dust fertilizing our oceans

December 05, 2016

The way in which man-made acids in the atmosphere interact with the dust that nourishes our oceans has been quantified by scientists for the first time.

In the international study led by the University of Leeds, researchers have pinpointed how much phosphate "fertiliser" is released from dust depending on atmospheric acid levels.

Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for all life, and when it falls into the ocean, it acts as a fertiliser that stimulates the growth of phytoplankton and marine life.

The new study allows scientists to quantify exactly how much phosphate "fertiliser" is released from dust depending on atmospheric acid levels.

Dr Anthony Stockdale, from the School of Earth and Environment at Leeds, is lead author of the study. He said: "The ability to quantify these processes will now allow models to predict how pollution on a global scale modulates the amount of fertiliser released in airborne dust before it falls into the oceans.

"Many regions of the globe are limited by the amount of phosphorous available, so pollution can have a very important impact on marine ecosystems."

Fellow author Michael Krom, an Emeritus Professor from Leeds who is now at the University of Haifa, added: "If more carbon dioxide is taken up by marine plants due to fertilisation from acidified dust, it is possible that air pollution may have been inadvertently reducing the amount of greenhouse gases, while at the same time increasing the amount of plants and even fish in areas such as the Mediterranean Sea."

Co-author Professor Athanasios Nenes, of Georgia Institute of Technology, said the implications went beyond the carbon cycle and climate.

"The Mediterranean is one of many locations of the globe where pollution and dust mix frequently," he said. "This study points to one more way this interaction can affect marine life and the 135 million inhabitants of its coastline."

Professor Krom added: "The next step is to develop models which include this new pathway for increased plant growth in the ocean, in order to fully determine the effect on marine ecosystems and Earth's climate, considering a full suite of chemical, physical and biochemical processes."

Apatite: the desert dust nourishing our seas


Phosphorus is one of the essential elements for life and is a critical component of building blocks such as DNA. Dusts, from deserts such as the Sahara, are an important source of phosphorus to Earth's oceans.

The mineral-containing dust is generated in copious amounts during storms and is found throughout the atmosphere. Most of the phosphorus in this dust is in an insoluble form that the microscopic plants of the oceans - phytoplankton and diatoms - cannot get at. Known as apatite, the phosphorus in the dust is similar to the substance found in our teeth and bones.

Acids can be released naturally into the atmosphere from volcanic eruptions and from living organisms. But the burning of fossil fuels is currently the most significant source of atmospheric acids.

In the same way that acid produced by the bacteria in our mouths can cause tooth decay, so can acids in the atmosphere dissolve apatite and turn it into a form of phosphorus that can be used by marine organisms, the study authors said.

As well as researchers from Leeds, Georgia and Haifa, experts from three institutions in Greece, one in Israel, one in Germany and two others in the UK worked on the findings, published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the USA.
-end-
The University of Leeds team was funded by The Leverhulme Trust.

Further information
  • "Understanding the nature of atmospheric acid processing of mineral dusts in supplying bioavailable phosphorus to the oceans" is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS)

  • A high-resolution NASA satellite image by Norman Kuring showing dust from western Africa pushing across the Atlantic Ocean on easterly winds is downloadable here: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=83966

  • For a copy of the paper, or for interviews, contact University of Leeds Media Relations Manager Gareth Dant via g.j.dant@leeds.ac.uk or 0113 343 3996

The University of Leeds

The University of Leeds is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK, with more than 31,000 students from 147 different countries, and a member of the Russell Group research-intensive universities.

We are a top 10 university for research and impact power in the UK, according to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, and positioned as one of the top 100 best universities in the world in the 2015 QS World University Rankings. We are The Times and The Sunday Times University of the Year 2017 http://www.leeds.ac.uk

University of Leeds

Related Phosphorus Articles:

Phosphorus deficit may disrupt regional food supply chains
Phosphorus-based fertilizer is essential in modern agriculture. In regions with high population growth, more phosphorus will be needed to produce more food.
SwRI scientist searches for stellar phosphorus to find potentially habitable exoplanets
SAN ANTONIO -- Sept. 16, 2020 -- A Southwest Research Institute scientist has identified stellar phosphorus as a probable marker in narrowing the search for life in the cosmos.
Worldwide loss of phosphorus due to soil erosion quantified for the first time
Phosphorus is essential for agriculture, yet this important plant nutrient is increasingly being lost from soils around the world.
Stars rich in phosphorus: Seeds of life in the universe
The journal Nature Communications today is publishing the discovery of a new type of stars, very rich in phosphorus, which could help to explain the origin of this chemical element in our Galaxy.
Black phosphorus future in 3D analysis, molecular fingerprinting
Many compact systems using mid-infrared technology continue to face compatibility issues when integrating with conventional electronics.
Fostering a sustainable use of phosphorus
Phosphorus is critical to food security, ecosystem functioning and human activities.
Newly discovered plant gene could boost phosphorus intake
Researchers from the University of Copenhagen have discovered an important gene in plants that could help agricultural crops collaborate better with underground fungi -- providing them with wider root networks and helping them to absorb phosphorus.
Anaerobically disinfect soil to increase phosphorus using diluted ethanol
Anaerobic disinfection of soil is an effective method to kill unwanted bacteria, parasites and weeds without using chemical pesticides.
Graphene heterostructures with black phosphorus, arsenic enable new infrared detectors
MIPT scientists and their colleagues from Japan and the U.S.
Recovering phosphorus from corn ethanol production can help reduce groundwater pollution
Dried distiller's grains with solubles (DDGS), a co-product from corn ethanol processing, is commonly used as feed for cattle, swine and poultry.
More Phosphorus News and Phosphorus Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: The Power Of Spaces
How do spaces shape the human experience? In what ways do our rooms, homes, and buildings give us meaning and purpose? This hour, TED speakers explore the power of the spaces we make and inhabit. Guests include architect Michael Murphy, musician David Byrne, artist Es Devlin, and architect Siamak Hariri.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#576 Science Communication in Creative Places
When you think of science communication, you might think of TED talks or museum talks or video talks, or... people giving lectures. It's a lot of people talking. But there's more to sci comm than that. This week host Bethany Brookshire talks to three people who have looked at science communication in places you might not expect it. We'll speak with Mauna Dasari, a graduate student at Notre Dame, about making mammals into a March Madness match. We'll talk with Sarah Garner, director of the Pathologists Assistant Program at Tulane University School of Medicine, who takes pathology instruction out of...
Now Playing: Radiolab

What If?
There's plenty of speculation about what Donald Trump might do in the wake of the election. Would he dispute the results if he loses? Would he simply refuse to leave office, or even try to use the military to maintain control? Last summer, Rosa Brooks got together a team of experts and political operatives from both sides of the aisle to ask a slightly different question. Rather than arguing about whether he'd do those things, they dug into what exactly would happen if he did. Part war game part choose your own adventure, Rosa's Transition Integrity Project doesn't give us any predictions, and it isn't a referendum on Trump. Instead, it's a deeply illuminating stress test on our laws, our institutions, and on the commitment to democracy written into the constitution. This episode was reported by Bethel Habte, with help from Tracie Hunte, and produced by Bethel Habte. Jeremy Bloom provided original music. Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at Radiolab.org/donate.     You can read The Transition Integrity Project's report here.