A climate benefit has been discovered in melting ice sheets

melting _iceFrom the European Association of Geochemistry and the “Nature always finds a way” department comes carbon capture on the tiniest scale.

Study shows iron from melting ice sheets may help buffer global warming A newly-discovered source of oceanic bioavailable iron could have a major impact our understanding of marine food chains and global warming. A UK team has discovered that summer meltwaters from ice sheets are rich in iron, which will have important implications on phytoplankton growth. The findings are reported in the journal Nature Communications on May 21, 2014. 

It is well known that bioavailable iron boosts phytoplankton growth in many of the Earth’s oceans. In turn phytoplankton capture carbon – thus buffering the effects of global warming. The plankton also feed into the bottom of the oceanic food chain, thus providing a food source for marine animals.

The team, comprising researchers from the Universities of Bristol, Leeds, Edinburgh and the National Oceanography Centre, collected meltwater discharged from the 600 km2 Leverett Glacier** in Greenland over the summer of 2012, which was subsequently tested for bioavailable iron content. The researchers found that the water exiting from beneath the melting ice sheet contained significant quantities of previously-unconsidered bioavailable iron. This means that the polar oceans receive a seasonal iron boost as the glaciers melt.

Jon Hawkings (Bristol), the lead author, said

“The Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets cover around 10% of global land surface. Iron exported in icebergs from these ice sheets have been recognised as a source of iron to the oceans for some time. Our finding that there is also significant iron discharged in runoff from large ice sheet catchments is new. ”

“This means that relatively high iron concentrations are released from the ice sheet all summer, providing a continuous source of iron to the coastal ocean”

Iron is one of the most important biochemical elements, due to its impact on ocean productivity. Despite being the fourth most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, it is mostly not biologically available because it is largely present as unreactive minerals in natural waters. Over the last 20 years there has been controversy over the role of iron in marine food chains and the global carbon cycle, with some groups experimenting with dumping iron into the sea in order to accelerate plankton growth – with the idea that increased plankton growth would capture man made CO2. This work indicates that ice sheets may already be carrying out this process every summer.

Based on their results the team estimates that the flux of bioavailable iron associated with glacial runoff is between 400,000 and 2,500,000 tonnes per year in Greenland and between 60,000 and 100,000 tonnes per year in Antarctica. Taking the combined average figures, this would equal the weight of around 125 Eiffel Towers, or around 3000 fully-laden Boeing 747s being added to the ocean each year.

Jon Hawkings added;

“This is a substantial release of iron from the ice sheet, similar in size to that supplied to the oceans by atmospheric dust, another major iron source to the world’s oceans.

At the moment it is just too early to estimate how much additional iron will be carried down from ice sheets into the sea. Of course, the iron release from ice sheet will be localised to the Polar Regions around the ice sheets, so the importance of glacial iron there will be significantly higher. Researchers have already noted that glacial meltwater run-off is associated with large phytoplankton blooms – this may help to explain why”.

Commenting on the relevance of this study, Professor Andreas Kappler (geomicrobiologist at the University of Tübingen, Germany, who is also secretary of the European Association of Geiochemistry) said:

“This study shows that glacier meltwater can contain iron concentrations that are high enough to significantly stimulate biological productivity in oceans that otherwise are oftentimes limited in the element iron that is essential to most living organisms. Although the global importance of this flux of iron into oceans needs to be quantified and the bioavailability of the iron species found should be demonstrated experimentally in future studies, the present study provides a plausible path for nutrient supply to oceanic life.”



This press release is based on the following paper: Ice sheets as a significant source of highly reactive nanoparticulate iron to the oceans. Authors Jon R. Hawkings, Jemma L. Wadham, Martyn Tranter, Rob Raiswell, Liane G. Benning, Peter J. Statham, Andrew Tedstone, Peter Nienow, Katherine Lee & Jon Telling NATURE COMMUNICATIONS | 5:3929 | DOI: 10.1038/ncomms4929, published 21 May 2014


This has been observed and noted before on WUWT, back in 2011

Another interesting sea ice interaction

and in 2012 by Woods Hole:

Scientists Discover Huge Phytoplankton Bloom in Ice Covered Waters

And in this paper:

Greenland meltwater as a significant and potentially bioavailable source of iron to the ocean

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May 21, 2014 8:19 am

My nails are growing faster lately due to climate change.
I need a grant to buy a new nail clipper set.

May 21, 2014 8:20 am

That earth’s climate, like many complex systems, is homeostatic is apparent to any disinterested observer. IMO it’s possible to explain the fact of planetary self-regulation without invoking God, as does Dr. Spencer, & without worshiping the goddess Gaia.

May 21, 2014 8:22 am

It’s a shame that iron is so easy to measure…
…and phosphate is almost impossible

May 21, 2014 8:25 am

Nature always finds the way – nice

Bloke down the pub
May 21, 2014 8:45 am

Another negative feedback to add to the list. Perhaps periods of low melting coincide with mass extinctions? Phew, that was a big bullet we dodged.

May 21, 2014 8:46 am

it’s more complex than we thought

May 21, 2014 9:07 am

This is actually interesting. The corralary is that clacier melt has been seeding bio-available iron into the oceans since there were glaciers dumping off into the oceans. In other words a very, very long time.
Think of how much iron and other minerals were released into the sea during the ends of glacial periods. The quantities must have been massive. This implies that there huge palnkton blooms in the termination points of glaciers worldwide. This also helps explain why whales migrate to glacier bays- the feeding is superior and the whales have known this over significant periods of time.
As others have pointed, this also sprovides yet another example that the climate catastrophist view of climate change is simplisitic and naive.

Grey Lensman
May 21, 2014 9:16 am

The guy that discovered that seeding the ocean with cheap iron sulphate, caused massive algae blooms that fed fish and locked up carbon was ridiculed and strangely died a sudden early death.

May 21, 2014 9:35 am

This groundbreaking study also discovered that glacial ice tends to be cold, although the melt water was observed to be slightly higher in temperature.
Now in other news, “lack of rain” implicated in recent drought…

Gary Pearse
May 21, 2014 9:49 am

The earth’s crust is 5% iron, ships are iron, iron ore production annually is ~3B metric tons (60% iron). Earth’s rivers carry enormous amounts of iron bearing sediment.
This is not a scarce element. A million tonnes or thereabouts added should be measured against the larger picture. This is the trouble with climate science they would rather measure things in olympic swimming pools, Manhattans, and the like to wow the peanut gallery.
The positive take away for me is the earth is trying so hard to show us that there is a system of negative feedbacks resisting change either way. Unlike that of relativity, most citizens are going to catch on before the scientists do.

May 21, 2014 9:53 am

The science itself looks good, no mention of global warming, but let down by the press release, which of course has to mention it. I wonder how much of the global warming hype is generated in press releases written by PR and marketing people.
I reckon if a poll was taken a large percentage of people would say that ALL ice melting is caused by global warming (actually its the sun that does most of it, directly or via seawater, plus some geothermal melting).

May 21, 2014 10:08 am

Louis Hooffstetter says:
April 29, 2014 at 3:40 am
Here is a very interesting story to check out:
I’d love to see a post about this issue.

May 21, 2014 10:13 am

Iron seeding could turn into a carbon trading scam that doesn’t implement the seeding in a responsible way. http://www.whoi.edu/oceanus/viewArticle.do?id=34167
At least scientists are looking before they leap and trying to understand the implications before proceeding. Humans tend to screw things up when we try to control nature.

Grey Lensman
May 21, 2014 10:14 am

Thank you Roger Knights. Seems the studies tried to denigrate it by trying to find how many climate scientists can pass through the eye of a needle. The obvious, food chain and dead stuff migrates to ocean floor being to much for them to swallow.

May 21, 2014 10:18 am

So…CO2 is increasing. It could be due to less algal growth & sequestration, possibly because of less bio-active iron deposition. Humans could be the reason why there is less bio-active iron deposition in the ocean !! OMG. It’s all our fault…
I smell an excellent grant request proposal !! It could be worth millions !!!

michael hart
May 21, 2014 11:21 am

OMG, a new unit. Iron is now measured in “Eiffel Towers”!
But is the productivity of those particular waters iron-limited in terms of their role in the carbon cycle (which is clearly not understood well enough)?

Cosmic ray
May 21, 2014 12:23 pm

Sounds like reason #11 for the cause killing pause.

May 21, 2014 2:40 pm

Soooooooo. The iron injected by the Greenland glaciers go AGAINST the Labrador/Gulf stream current,and interact with that of Antartica? Man. I want some of that fun!

Grey Lensman
May 21, 2014 11:55 pm

But the Alaska Salmon is doomed, gotta tear down the dams,………………………….
Great catch Roger

May 22, 2014 8:29 am

“or around 3000 fully-laden Boeing 747s being added to the ocean each year.”
CNN is sure to have the exclusive coverage of this event.

May 22, 2014 10:06 am

“with some groups experimenting with dumping iron into the sea in order to accelerate plankton growth”, for further details also see:

May 22, 2014 4:27 pm

@conscious1 at 10:13 am
At least scientists are looking before they leap and trying to understand the implications before proceeding. Humans tend to screw things up when we try to control nature.
Besides, it wouldn’t do to find a really cheap solution to Global Warming that is also beneficial to oceanic life. /sarc.
Those careful scientists are terrified to begin small experiments for fear they might work gangbusters.

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