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Quantification of dissolved iron sources to the North Atlantic Ocean



Dissolved iron is an essential micronutrient for marine phytoplankton, and its availability controls patterns of primary productivity and carbon cycling throughout the oceans1,2. The relative importance of different sources of iron to the oceans is not well known, however, and flux estimates from atmospheric dust, hydrothermal vents and oceanic sediments vary by orders of magnitude. Here we present a high-resolution transect of dissolved stable iron isotope ratios (δ56Fe) and iron concentrations ([Fe]) along a section of the North Atlantic Ocean. The different iron sources can be identified by their unique δ56Fe signatures, which persist throughout the water column. This allows us to calculate the relative contribution from dust, hydrothermal venting and reductive and non-reductive sedimentary release to the dissolved phase. We find that Saharan dust aerosol is the dominant source of dissolved iron along the section, contributing 71–87 per cent of dissolved iron. Additional sources of iron are non-reductive release from oxygenated sediments on the North American margin (10–19 per cent), reductive sedimentary dissolution on the African margin (1–4 per cent) and hydrothermal venting at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (2–6 per cent). Our data also indicate that hydrothermal vents in the North Atlantic are a source of isotopically light iron, which travels thousands of kilometres from vent sites, potentially influencing surface productivity. Changes in the relative importance of the different iron sources through time may affect interactions between the carbon cycle and climate.

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Figure 1: The cruise track of the US GEOTRACES North Atlantic GA03 Zonal Transect.
Figure 2: Dissolved Fe concentration and δ56Fe results from the USGT North Atlantic GA03 Zonal Transect.
Figure 3: The influence of hydrothermal venting on dissolved Fe and δ56Fe.
Figure 4: Quantification of the importance of sources to the dissolved Fe reservoir across the North Atlantic section.


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We thank the Captain, crew and GEOTRACES sampling team on RV Knorr on both USGT10 and USGT11; A. Rosenberg for technical assistance; J. Wu, R. Middag, K. Bruland and P. Sedwick for supplying concentration data that informed double-spike calculations; and C. Hayes for calibrating transmissometry data. We thank W. Jenkins, W. Smethie, E. Boyle and G. Cutter for water mass observations. The Ocean Data Facility supplied temperature, PSS-78 salinity, fluorescence, transmissometry, dissolved oxygen and nutrient data from both cruises. Figures were created with Matlab and Adobe Illustrator. This study was funded by National Science Foundation grant OCE-1131387.

Author information




The paper was written by T.M.C. and S.G.J. Samples were processed and analysed by T.M.C.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Tim M. Conway.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Multiple oceanographic parameters and macronutrients from the USGT North Atlantic GA03 Zonal Transect.

The black vertical lines denote the separation between the 2010 and 2011 cruise legs. Data supplied by Ocean Data Facility.

Extended Data Figure 2 Dissolved Fe and δ56Fe (relative to IRMM-014) results, multiple oceanographic parameters and macronutrients from the surface 1,000 m of the USGT North Atlantic GA03 Zonal Transect.

The black vertical lines denote the separation between the 2010 and 2011 cruise legs. Non-Fe data supplied by Ocean Data Facility. The Mauritanian OMZ is delineated by the 120 μmol kg−1 dissolved oxygen contour (black dashed line).

Extended Data Figure 3 Dissolved nitrate, dissolved Fe concentration and dissolved δ56Fe (relative to IRMM-014) from the surface 200 m of four USGT GA03 North Atlantic stations where heavy δ56Fe from dust deposition is observed.

The four stations were USGT10-9 (17.4° N 18.3° W), USGT10-10 (17.4° N 20.8° W), USGT11-6 (37.6° N 68.5° W) and USGT11-3 (38.7° N 69.1° W). The blue bar denotes the surface mixed layer and the green the fluorescence maximum at the two eastern stations (the fluorescence maximum is dispersed throughout the mixed layer in the west). A 2σ error is shown for δ56Fe where the value is larger than the point. The grey arrows labelled D represent surface input of Fe from aerosol dust with a δ56Fe of +0.68‰. Nitrate data supplied by Ocean Data Facility.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Data

This file contains dataset of 0.2 μm filtered dissolved iron concentration and dissolved iron stable isotope ratios (δ56Fe) for the North Atlantic Zonal Transect (legs USGT10 and USGT11). Values were averaged from two ICPMS analyses. All δ56Fe are expressed relative to isotope standard IRMM-014. See Methods for more details. (XLS 117 kb)

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Conway, T., John, S. Quantification of dissolved iron sources to the North Atlantic Ocean. Nature 511, 212–215 (2014).

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