Magazine article Science News

It's Bottoms Up for Iron at Sea's Surface. (Science News of the Week)

Magazine article Science News

It's Bottoms Up for Iron at Sea's Surface. (Science News of the Week)

Article excerpt

Biological activity at the base of the food chain in many regions of the ocean is limited by the availability of dissolved iron. The algae that convert sunlight into food in the sea's top 100 meters or so can't fully use the other nutrients present because there isn't enough iron. Just where the crucial metal comes from is often not known.

An analysis of seafloor sediments obtained off Antarctica suggests that the dissolved iron in surface waters that fuels much of the region's biological productivity comes from deeper waters via upwelling currents.

Many scientists have thought that much of the ocean's dissolved iron comes from dust blowing off the continents, notes Gabriel M. Filippelli, a bio-geochemist at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. However, his analysis of the seafloor sediments suggests that only 2 percent of the iron in the southern oceans comes from airborne dust. The rest is supplied by deep currents that hug the ocean bottom for hundreds of years before rising to the surface around Antarctica.

Filippelli and Jennifer C. Latimer, a geologist at Indiana University in Bloomington, analyzed sediments taken from two locations in the South Atlantic Ocean and one from the southern Indian Ocean. Evidence from these ancient muds, some up to 270,000 years old, show that 10 times as much iron had settled into the region's ocean-floor ooze during recent ice ages than is being deposited there now. The researchers presented their findings at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco last month, and their analysis also appeared in the December 2001 PALEOCEANOGRPHY.

By comparing the changing concentration of life-derived phosphorous in the mud with the relatively stable concentration of titanium--a metallic element that erodes from rock as iron does but that organisms don't typically use--Filippelli and Latimer could estimate variations in biological productivity in the southern oceans. …

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