Trace metals in the air make big splash on life under the sea

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

In the ocean, a little bit of metal can go a long way.

A new Cornell University-led study shows that trace metals, deposited by aerosols like dust and other particles in the atmosphere, have a hefty impact on , affecting biological productivity and changing the .

The paper, "Aerosol Trace Metal Leaching and Impacts on Marine Microorganisms," was published in Nature Communications.

The sources of such range from volcanoes, wildfires and to anthropogenic causes, like the burning of fossil fuels. After being spewed up and undergoing chemical reactions in the atmosphere, these particles often make their way to remote ocean regions, where they are deposited via precipitation or dry deposition.

"In a pollution event or a dust storm, and even in these faraway places, atmospheric deposition can be the most important source of new metals," said lead author Natalie Mahowald, the Irving Porter Church Professor of Engineering and Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future faculty director for the environment.

Some metals prove to be insoluble and drop to the floor, while others are taken up by various biota—the little guys," in Mahowald's words—like phytoplankton and bacteria, which make up 80 percent of marine life and act as circulators of oxygen and nutrients throughout the ecosystem.

"If you change the ecosystem structure at this scale—this is where all the productivity occurs—it will cascade up and impact the fish and the animals we see more easily," Mahowald said.

While previous research has focused on the pivotal role of iron in the oceans, Mahowald and her team examined the effects of iron and other metals, including aluminum, manganese, zinc, lead, copper, nickel, cobalt and cadmium. Many of these metals, such as copper, can be toxic pollutants, but the researchers found that the metals sometimes function as nutrients, depending on how, where and with what they are mixed.

Explore further

East Asian dust deposition impacts on marine biological productivity

More information: Natalie M. Mahowald et al, Aerosol trace metal leaching and impacts on marine microorganisms, Nature Communications (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-04970-7
Journal information: Nature Communications

Provided by Cornell University
Citation: Trace metals in the air make big splash on life under the sea (2018, August 22) retrieved 16 May 2021 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments