Scientists studying the run-off from Greenland's melting glaciers have discovered a vastly larger amount of a key ocean nutrient poised to flood into the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Some 400,000 metric tons of phosphorus per year is now estimated to be pouring from the Greenland ice sheet. That's equivalent to the amount of the nutrient released by the Amazon or the Mississippi River, according to a new study published online today in the journal Global Biogeochemical Cycles.
If that number is correct, it comes to about a seventh more of that essential nutrient being added to the Arctic Ocean's phosphorus budget, where it could rev up primary producers like phytoplankton, which form the base of the food web. From the Arctic, that extra dose of fertilizer and its effects on the Arctic ecosystem could easily reach the north Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
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The key to discovering this larger amount of phosphorus was to look at the meltwater draining from the base of a large glacier – one that is similar to those giant glaciers further north in Greenland.
"Previous work has all been focused on quite small glacial systems," said Jon Hawkings of Bristol Glaciology Centre at the University of Bristol in the UK. Hawkings is the lead author on the paper describing the work. Smaller glaciers had not showed such large amounts of phosphorus in the meltwater.
Hawkings and his team set up camp at the base of the 230-square-mile (600-square-kilometer) Leverett glacier and spent three months monitoring and collecting samples of its meltwater. When they analyzed those samples back in their lab they found that the concentrations of dissolved phosphorus were similar to those of Arctic rivers.
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But that was just the dissolved form of the element. When they also accounted for the powdery ground rock particles that are rich in phosphorus, they found the total phosphorus concentrations leaped to 10 times more than Arctic river waters.