Earth Institute Research Projects

Collaborative Research: U.S. GEOTRACES Pacific Meridional Transect: Thorium-232, Thorium-231 and Protactinium-231 as tracers of trace element supply and removal

Lead PI: Dr. Robert F. Anderson , Mr. Martin Q. Fleisher

Unit Affiliation: Geochemistry, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO)

November 2017 - October 2020
Project Type: Research

DESCRIPTION: The goal of the international GEOTRACES program is to understand the distributions of trace chemical elements and their isotopes in the oceans. Many trace elements are essential for life and their extremely low concentrations in seawater are thought to limit biological productivity (fertility) throughout much of the ocean. This limitation, in turn, partially constrains the level of fisheries that can be supported by marine ecosystems as well as the ocean's capacity to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Whereas the importance of these trace-element micronutrients is well established, many basic features of their ocean distribution remain unknown. Measurements of other elements and isotopes can be used to understand the processes that influence the distributions of the micronutrient elements. Two naturally-occurring radioactive isotopes that are particularly important in this regard are thorium-230 and protactinium-231, which have been designated as key parameters to be measured as part of GEOTRACES. This project will focus on the measurement of these two isotopes in order to provide critical information about the processes that supply iron to the Pacific Ocean, as well as the rates of those processes. The project will support an early career investigator, a postdoctoral researcher, and students at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Samples of seawater and of suspended particulate material will be collected along a north-south transect between Alaska and Tahiti to examine the processes that supply and remove trace elements. These samples will be analyzed for naturally-occurring radionuclides thorium-232, thorium-230 and protactinium-231. Aerosol samples and sediments collected along the transect will be analyzed as well. In collaboration with other investigators involved in the expedition, this project will: 1) Interpret the distributions of thorium-232 and thorium-230 to quantify the supply of iron and other trace elements delivered by dust as well as the trace elements supplied by chemical reactions in volcanic sediments along the Alaskan margin,  2) Determine the sinking flux of major particulate phases and of particulate trace elements throughout the water column to quantify their rate of removal from the ocean, and  3) Compare the rate of trace element removal among contrasting environmental regimes to be encountered along the Alaska to Tahiti transect to identify the key physical, chemical and biological factors, such as dust supply and biological productivity, that regulate the rate of trace element removal from the ocean.