Trace metals, which are deposited by aerosol particles in the atmosphere, have a serious impact on the health of marine ecosystems, according to a study published in the journal Nature Communications.
There are a number of natural and man-made sources of aerosol particles, including wildfires, volcanic eruptions and the burning of fossil fuels. Once these particles have made their way into the atmosphere, they undergo chemical reactions before settling in remote ocean regions.
Some of the metals are insoluble and sink to the ocean floor, while others are taken up by microscopically-small phytoplankton and bacteria, which circulate oxygen and nutrients throughout the ocean ecosystem.
"If you change the ecosystem structure at this scale– this is where all the productivity occurs – it will cascade up and impact the fish and the animals we see more easily," says the study’s lead author, Natalie Mahowald of Cornell University.
While the study concludes that aerosol deposition is inhibiting phytoplankton growth rates, researchers also found that some metals can function as nutrients depending on the location and particle concentration.