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Air pollution could actually be helping our oceans to absorb greenhouse gases

Gary Hershorn | Corbis News | Getty Images

A new study has found evidence to suggest that iron particles produced by industry and cities are being dissolved by man-made air pollution and washed into the sea. This could, potentially, increase the amount of greenhouse gases oceans can absorb.

In a news release earlier this week, the University of Birmingham said that "iron-rich particles" from coal burning and steel manufacturing had been collected from the East China Sea.

The particles had a thick sulphate coating, which contained soluble iron. This, the university said, helped to prove the theory of "acid iron dissolution."

"Air pollution dissolves iron in aerosols, which may help to fertilize the oceans," the University of Birmingham's Zongbo Shi said in a statement.

"We know that air pollution seriously damages human health and terrestrial ecosystems but this 'new' source of soluble iron can potentially increase the amount of carbon dioxide stored in the oceans and, thus, inadvertently offset global warming," Shi, who was a corresponding author of the study, added.

Shi went on to explain that human activity could have led to an increase of "atmospherically soluble iron" in our oceans several times since the Industrial Revolution. This could impact the efficacy of oceans' ability to regulate the climate.

"Controlling air pollution will bring huge benefits to human welfare but it may reduce the amount of nutrients to the surface ocean and, thus, the ocean carbon uptake rate," Shi said.

"More work needs to be done to quantify the impact of anthropogenic soluble iron on ocean ecosystems and climate."

Scientists from Birmingham and Shandong University in China led the research with colleagues from universities in both the U.S. and Japan, with their findings published in Science Advances.