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Growth in the sea comes down to a struggle for iron

Scientists know that injecting iron into some major regions of the oceans can stimulate the growth of diatoms and other phytoplankton, but something odd occurs as these tiny marine plants continue to grow. They begin to starve in the midst of plenty, acting as though iron, an essential nutrient, still is in short supply. Why this happens is unclear, but the answer could be that iron sets off a kind of chemical warfare in the marine ecosystem, according to University of Maine oceanographer Mark Wells. And diatoms may not always come out on top.

In collaboration with a large Japanese research program, Wells and a team of scientists from UMaine and other universities are studying the fate of iron in marine waters. Their findings could help determine the fate of something else, a controversial proposal to address the threat of global warming. The National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy are providing financial support.

Field work got underway in July, 2004, when Wells served as chief scientist on the Kilo Moana, a research ship that left Hawaii, bound for the sub-Arctic waters of the western Pacific. Owned by the Office of Naval Research and operated by the University of Hawaii, the ship was loaded with equipment and supplies, ready for an extended stay at sea. Its subsurface pontoon hull give it more stability in choppy seas, a benefit to Wells who normally gets seasick on these voyages.

For nine days, she steamed northwest to rendezvous with a research vessel from the University of Tokyo, the Hakuho Maru, carrying a large group of Japanese scientists. The Japanese project is known as SEEDS (Subarctic Pacific Iron Experiment for Ecosystem Dynamics Study), an ongoing effort that began in 2001 to study the ecological consequences of injecting iron into the ocean.

For more than a century, oceanographers puzzled over the low abundance of phytoplankton in some ocean waters that seemed to hold all the basic nutrients for life. Spe
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Contact: Mark Wells
mlwells@maine.edu
207-581 -4322
University of Maine
25-Feb-2005


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