Iron Fertilization of the Subantarctic Ocean During the Last Ice Age

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Science  21 Mar 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6177, pp. 1347-1350
DOI: 10.1126/science.1246848

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Productive Dustiness

The idea that biological productivity in the surface ocean is limited by a lack of available iron has been widely accepted, but it has been difficult to show that this effect might have operated in the geological past. Martínez-García et al. (p. 1347) investigated the isotopic composition of foraminifera-bound nitrogen in samples from an Ocean Drilling Project sediment core and found millennial-scale changes in nitrate consumption correlated with fluxes in the iron burial and productivity proxies over the past 160,000 years. Hence, in the Southern Ocean the biological pump was strengthened when dust fluxes were high, which explains a significant part of the difference in atmospheric CO2 concentrations observed to occur across glacial cycles.


John H. Martin, who discovered widespread iron limitation of ocean productivity, proposed that dust-borne iron fertilization of Southern Ocean phytoplankton caused the ice age reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). In a sediment core from the Subantarctic Atlantic, we measured foraminifera-bound nitrogen isotopes to reconstruct ice age nitrate consumption, burial fluxes of iron, and proxies for productivity. Peak glacial times and millennial cold events are characterized by increases in dust flux, productivity, and the degree of nitrate consumption; this combination is uniquely consistent with Subantarctic iron fertilization. The associated strengthening of the Southern Ocean’s biological pump can explain the lowering of CO2 at the transition from mid-climate states to full ice age conditions as well as the millennial-scale CO2 oscillations.

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