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Dust may help maintain a healthy planet, USC researchers find

Could dust be the answer to global warming? Blake Stubbins, graduate researcher in the School of the Earth, Ocean and Environment, recently published evidence that wind systems in South America have been fertilizing the ocean with nutrients for over 8 million years, likely impacting how much carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, is present. 

How it works: Wind-blown sediments in central Argentina, like dust from sand dunes, provide iron, a key micronutrient, to microscopic plants known as phytoplankton in the sea. The phytoplankton uses a lot of carbon dioxide — enough to impact global CO2 levels. 

Why it matters: Stubbins’ research, published in Nature Communications, indicates that changing global temperatures over the last 6-8 million years have created the necessary conditions for our modern ecosystems. With current global warming, slight changes to Earth’s temperature and CO2 levels may endanger the processes that allow for ocean and land ecosystems to thrive. 

Blake taking photos of sediment
Blake Stubbins, an SEOE graduate researcher, examines sedimentary rocks in eastern Argentina. Between 6-8 million years old, the rocks provide evidence of the beginnings of the dust systems in the region. 

What they’re saying:  

“Gaining a better understanding of what phenomena affect global CO2 levels could be important as we continue to experience increased CO2 emissions and global warming. Wind-blown sediment in South America links terrestrial, marine, biological and atmospheric processes that may reduce global CO2 levels over time,” Stubbins says. 

“The Earth's climate has changed significantly over the past 10-5 million years, and we need to understand how and why to better predict what changes may come in the future,” says Andrew Leier, professor in the School of the Earth, Ocean and Environment, and co-researcher. 

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