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Australian Dust Storms Feed Life Explosion

Dani Cooper, ABC Science Online
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Oct. 7, 2009 -- The red dust storm that dumped thousands of tons of soil across eastern Australia two weeks ago has caused an explosion in microscopic life in Sydney Harbor and beyond.

Researchers analyzing the impact say the finding validates plans to increase fish stocks to feed some of the world's poorest people using ocean fertilization.

Ian Jones, director of the Ocean Technology Group at University of Sydney, said enriching oceans with nitrogen will also aid the fight against climate change.

Jones' comments follow an analysis of the impact on the sea of the 23 September dust storm that swept across New South Wales and southeast Queensland.

At its peak the storm carried about 140,000 tons of soil an hour from central Australia.

An estimated 4000 tons of dust settled on Sydney, while Jones and his colleagues calculate about three million tons landed in the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand.

Measurements taken at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science on the harbor's north shore show a tripling of microscopic plant life, or phytoplankton, at the Chowder Bay site and in samples taken 10 kilometers off shore.

The scientists measure the presence of phytoplankton using remote sensing technology that can detect chlorophyll in the plants, which form the base of the ocean food chain.

Jones said phytoplankton needs nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphate to grow, nutrients that are scarce in what he calls Australia's "desert" ocean waters, but were abundant in the topsoil that blew across the country.

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Like all plants, phytoplankton take in carbon dioxide from the air, which is carried to the bottom of the ocean when the plants die.

Jones said it is estimated eight million tons of CO2 was captured by the extra two million tons of phytoplankton that grew in the Tasman Sea, the equivalent of a month's emissions from a coal-fired power station.

He said the dust storm was a natural experiment that supports their work in fertilizing the ocean by adding nitrogen-rich urea to the sea.

According to Jones this promotes the growth of phytoplankton near the surface of the ocean, which then leads to an increase in fish numbers.

Jones and colleague Associate Professor Rob Wheen, also of Sydney University, are waiting for approval to test the approach in Australian sea waters.

They want to inject 2.5 tons of urea into the ocean to increase the amount of phytoplankton in a controlled area.

"More phytoplankton growth means more stocks of fish. I see much promise in ocean nourishment being able to provide economical protein for vast numbers of malnourished people," said Jones.

He said a continuously nourished patch of water about 20 kilometers in diameter could double the income of artisan fishermen in countries such as Morocco, and provide a constant source of protein to local people.

"All this while storing 10 million tons per year of carbon dioxide in the deep ocean," he said.

A Nature paper earlier this year questioned the amount of CO2 captured through ocean fertilization and raised concerns about increases in algal blooms.

Jones said these criticisms were directed at research that used iron to enrich the ocean, rather than nitrogen.

He said the harbor findings show there is little danger to the environment from enriching the sea with nitrogen -- five days after the dust storm phytoplankton levels were back to normal.

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