Giant Icebergs Remove CO2 From Atmosphere, Aid Phytoplankton Growth

First Posted: Jan 11, 2016 01:21 PM EST

A team of researchers found that giant icebergs may have a major role in removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, according to a study at the University of Sheffield. The researchers found that melt water from massive icebergs contains iron and other types of nutrients, which aids in high levels of phytoplankton growth.  

This process is referred to as carbon sequestration, where it facilitates in the long-term storage of atmospheric carbon dioxide and gradually slows global warming. The researchers assessed 175 satellite images of ocean color, which indicates phytoplankton production at the ocean's surface, through a number of icebergs in the Southern Ocean. Some of these icebergs were at least 18 km in length.

Images from 2003-2013 indicated that enhanced phytoplankton productivity was a direct result of carbon storage in the ocean, which stretched hundreds of kilometers from giant icebergs and lasted for one month after an iceberg had passed.

"This new analysis reveals that giant icebergs may play a major role in the Southern Ocean carbon cycle. We detected substantially enhanced chlorophyll levels, typically over a radius of at least four-10 times the iceberg's length," Grant Bigg, lead author of the study, said in a news release.

The researchers found that Southern Ocean has a major function in the global carbon cycle, where it accommodates 10 percent of the ocean's total carbon sequestration. This includes a mixture of biological and chemical processes, which includes phytoplankton growth. The researchers found that melting water from icebergs aids in 20 percent of the carbon that is sequestered under the Southern Ocean.

"If giant iceberg calving increases this century as expected, this negative feedback on the carbon cycle may become more important than we previously thought," Bigg said.

The findings of this study were published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

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