When the Iceland volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted in April 2010, it brought air travel throughout Europe to a standstill because of the rainfall of ash that closed the airspace over 20 countries. However, it also inadvertently set the stage for a science experiment in how volcanoes fertilize life in the oceans, which was recently described in a study published in this month’s Geophysical Research Letters.
Eric Achterberg, lead researcher of the study and a scientist working for the National Oceanography Centre Southampton in the UK, was in the process of taking a series of research cruises in the North Atlantic when the eruptions began. His team quickly realized that they had a first-time opportunity to see how the oceans reacted when they were fed with massive doses of ash, which contains iron, a crucial mineral in the development of plankton.
The ocean bloomed for five weeks thanks to the massive amounts of ash dumped by the erupting Iceland volcano, with North Atlantic plankton feeding and multiplying over an area of 220,000 square miles. However, the feeding frenzy resulted in a shortage of nitrate, another key ingredient for the single-celled lifeforms at the bottom of the ocean’s food chain.
All too soon, the plankton party was over.
Now you may be scratching your head and thinking, well, that’s too bad, so sad but why should we care? Well, it just so happens that plankton, like plants, uses carbon dioxide as it goes about its daily business. And carbon dioxide is one of the so-called greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.
Some scientists, worried about the rate of climate change, have suggested that we seed the oceans with iron to encourage plankton to grow so that they can take more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
Sadly, the new study suggested that the idea won’t work. The Iceland volcano wasn’t just a spoiler when it came to air travel. It gave us new evidence that there won’t be a quick technical fix to our global warming problems either.
[iceland volcano photos courtesy Michi S. and Flickr]