According to a new study led by researchers from Cornell University, marine plastic isn’t the only thing threatening ocean life and the ecosystem. Also affecting biological productivity and changing the ocean ecosystem are trace metals carried by aerosols, like dust and other particles in the atmosphere.

Aerosol particles from sources such as volcanoes, wildfires and desert dust, to anthropogenic causes, like the burning of fossil fuels, are spewed up and undergo chemical reactions in the atmosphere. The particles typically reach remote ocean regions where they are deposited through precipitation or dry deposition.

"In a pollution event or a dust storm, and even in these faraway places, atmospheric deposition can be the most important source of new metals," said lead author Natalie Mahowald, the Irving Porter Church Professor of Engineering and Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future faculty director for the environment.

"Some metals prove to be insoluble and drop to the ocean floor, while others are taken up by various biota — the little guys," said Mahowald. Those little guys, according to Mahowald, being the phytoplankton and bacteria that compose 80% of marine life, circulating oxygen and nutrients throughout the 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," Mahowald said.

The paper, "Aerosol Trace Metal Leaching and Impacts on Marine Microorganisms," was published in Nature Communications.

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