Researchers from Princeton University and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich have confirmed that during the last ice age iron fertilization caused plankton to thrive in a region of the Southern Ocean.
The study published in Science confirms a longstanding hypothesis that wind-borne dust carried iron to the region of the globe north of Antarctica, driving plankton growth and eventually leading to the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Plankton remove the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere during growth and transfer it to the deep ocean when their remains sink to the bottom. Iron fertilization has previously been suggested as a possible cause of the lower CO2 levels that occur during ice ages. These decreases in atmospheric CO2 are believed to have "amplified" the ice ages, making them much colder, with some scientists believing that there would have been no ice ages at all without the CO2 depletion.
Iron fertilization has also been suggested as one way to draw down the rising levels of CO2 associated with the burning of fossil fuels. Improved understanding of the drivers of ocean carbon storage could lead to better predictions of how the rise in manmade carbon dioxide will affect climate in the coming years.
The role of iron in storing carbon dioxide during ice ages was first proposed in 1990 by the late John Martin, an oceanographer at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in California who made the landmark discovery that iron limits plankton growth in large regions of the modern ocean.
Based on evidence that there was more dust in the atmosphere during the ice ages, Martin hypothesized that this increased dust supply to the Southern Ocean allowed plankton to grow more rapidly, sending more of their biomass into the deep ocean and removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Martin focused on the Southern Ocean because its surface waters contain the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus in abundance, allowing plankton to be fertilized by iron without running low on these necessary nutrients.
The research confirms Martin's hypothesis, said Daniel Sigman, Princeton's Dusenbury Professor of Geological and Geophysical Sciences, and a co-leader of the study. "I was an undergraduate when Martin published his 'ice age iron hypothesis,'" he said. "I remember being captivated by it, as was everyone else at the time. But I also remember thinking that Martin would have to be the luckiest person in the world to pose such a simple, beautiful explanation for the ice age CO2 paradox and then turn out to be right about it."
Previous efforts to test Martin's hypothesis established a strong correlation of cold climate, high dust and productivity in the Subantarctic region, a band of ocean encircling the globe between roughly 40 and 50 degrees south latitude that lies in the path of the winds that blow off South America, South Africa and Australia. However, it was not clear whether the productivity was due to iron fertilization or the northward shift of a zone of naturally occurring productivity that today lies to the south of the Subantarctic. This uncertainty was made more acute by the finding that ice age productivity was lower in the Antarctic Ocean, which lies south of the Subantarctic region.
To settle the matter, the research groups of Sigman at Princeton and Gerald Haug and Tim Eglinton at ETH Zurich teamed up to use a new method developed at Princeton. They analyzed fossils found in deep sea sediment -- deposited during the last ice age in the Subantarctic region -- with the goal of reconstructing past changes in the nitrogen concentration of surface waters and combining the results with side-by-side measurements of dust-borne iron and productivity. If the dust-borne iron fertilization hypothesis was correct, then nitrogen would have been more completely consumed by the plankton, leading to lower residual nitrogen concentrations in the surface waters. In contrast, if the productivity increases were in response to a northward shift in ocean conditions, then nitrogen concentrations would have risen.
The researchers measured the ratio of nitrogen isotopes, which have the same number of protons but differing numbers of neutrons, that were preserved within the carbonate shells of a group of marine microfossils called foraminifera. The investigators found that nitrogen concentrations indeed declined during the cold periods when iron deposition and productivity rose, in a manner consistent with the dust-borne iron fertilization theory. Ocean models as well as the strong correlation of the sediment core changes with the known changes in atmospheric CO2 suggest that this iron fertilization of Southern Ocean plankton can explain roughly half of the CO2 decline during peak ice ages.
Although Martin had proposed that purposeful iron addition to the Southern Ocean could reduce the rise in atmospheric CO2, Sigman noted that the amount of CO2 removed though iron fertilization is likely to be minor compared to the amount of CO2 that humans are now pushing into the atmosphere.
"The dramatic fertilization that we observed during ice ages should have caused a decline in atmospheric CO2 over hundreds of years, which was important for climate changes over ice age cycles," Sigman said. "But for humans to duplicate it today would require unprecedented engineering of the global environment, and it would still only compensate for less than 20 years of fossil fuel burning."
Edward Brook, a paleoclimatologist at Oregon State University who was not involved in the research, said, "This group has been doing a lot of important work in this area for quite a while and this an important advance. It will be interesting to see if the patterns they see in this one spot are consistent with variations in other places relevant to global changes in carbon dioxide."
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