Wednesday May 10, 2023


An Oregon State University scientist is leading new research aimed at uncovering the role of dust in sustaining global ocean ecosystems and controlling atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

Researchers have long been aware that phytoplankton, which are plant-like organisms that reside in the top layer of the ocean and serve as the basis of the marine food chain, depend on dust from terrestrial sources for essential nutrients. However, globally quantifying the extent and magnitude of the impact of this dust – particles from sources such as soil that are carried by the wind and affect the Earth’s climate – has proven to be challenging.

“This is really the first time it has been shown, using the modern observational record and at the global scale, that the nutrients carried by dust being deposited on the ocean are creating a response in the surface ocean biology,” said Toby Westberry, an oceanographer at Oregon State and lead author of the just-published paper in Science.

The ocean plays an important role in the carbon cycle; carbon dioxide from the atmosphere dissolves in surface waters, where phytoplankton turns the carbon into organic matter through photosynthesis. Some of the newly formed organic matter sinks from the surface ocean to the deep sea, where it is locked away, a pathway known as the biological pump.

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