Discovery on the prowl for the ocean's vital nutrients

Oct 15, 2010 by Pete Wilton
Image: NERC research vessel RRS Discovery. Photo: Plumbago.

Normally we think of metals in our water supply as a bad thing, but when it comes to trace amounts of metals welling-up from the ocean’s depths we should count ourselves lucky that they appear.

That's because metals such as iron and zinc are essential to all kinds of marine life – they act rather like a 'fuel' that powers ocean ecosystems. On 17 October an Oxford University-led expedition will set sail for the South Atlantic to study these ‘micronutrient’ metals.

'Because they are present in seawater at such low concentrations they are difficult to measure but with this new expedition we hope to revolutionise our understanding of the 'micronutrient' cycle and gain insights into the past, present and future of Earth's climate,' explains Gideon Henderson of Oxford University’s Department of Earth Sciences and the Oxford Martin School, who is leading the UK-GEOTRACES consortium.

Gideon will lead a team of 24 scientists from 10 UK institutes aboard the Royal Research Ship Discovery, one of NERC’s research vessels, collecting samples and carrying out experiments on the 39-day cruise from Cape Town to Montevideo.

The RRS Discovery will head to the South Atlantic where the ocean is particularly rich in life, but where the sources of micronutrients are a mystery. By collecting samples, and making a wide range of measurements both onboard and back in the lab, the research team hopes to learn how the metals enter and leave the , and how their abundance in seawater influences marine biology.

Much of our understanding of past climate comes from measurements of marine sediments but understanding how climate information is reflected in the chemistry of the sediments is essential if we are to interpret this evidence correctly.

Understanding the cycle is also vital if we are to assess whether proposed geo-engineering schemes, such as 'seeding' the oceans with iron to increase their carbon uptake, might work.

'Changes in marine ecosystems also have a wider impact: these ecosystems are vital for food production, biodiversity, international development, tourism, and pollution management,' Gideon tells me.

'Any changes in the cycling of micronutrients in the South Atlantic will have an impact not just on the local area but also on the natural resources, economies and standard of living of countries around the world.'

Explore further: Study outlines 20-year process to create meteorological partnership between US and Cuba

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Quake rattles nerves in Napa Valley after 2014 disaster

15 hours ago

A magnitude-4.1 earthquake has jolted Napa Valley and became an unwelcome reminder of the wine country's large temblor last summer—the strongest quake to hit Northern California in a quarter-century.

Image: Cambodian rivers from orbit

22 hours ago

A flooded landscape in Cambodia between the Mekong River (right) and Tonlé Sap river (left) is pictured by Japan's ALOS satellite. The centre of this image is about 30 km north of the centre of the country's ...

Image: Agricultural fires in Angola, West Africa

May 21, 2015

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Aqua satellite collected this natural-color image which detected dozens of fires burning in southwestern Africa on May 21, 2015. The location, ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.