Understanding the response of the Earth's climate system to anthropogenic perturbation has been a pressing priority for society since the late 1980s. However, recent years have seen a major paradigm shift in how such an understanding can be reached. Climate change demands analysis within an integrated ‘Earth–system’ framework, taken to encompass the suite of interacting physical, chemical, biological and human processes that, in transporting and transforming materials and energy, jointly determine the conditions for life on the whole planet. This is a highly complex system, characterized by multiple nonlinear responses and thresholds, with linkages often between apparently disparate components. The interconnected nature of the Earth system is wonderfully illustrated by the diverse roles played by atmospheric transport of mineral ‘dust’, particularly in its capacity as a key pathway for the delivery of nutrients essential to plant growth, not only on land, but perhaps more importantly, in the ocean. Dust therefore biogeochemically links land, air and sea.
This paper reviews the biogeochemical role of mineral dust in the Earth system and its interaction with climate, and, in particular, the potential importance of both past and possible future changes in aeolian delivery of the micro–nutrient iron to the ocean. For instance, if, in the future, there was to be a widespread stabilization of soils for the purpose of carbon sequestration on land, a reduction in aeolian iron supply to the open ocean would occur. The resultant weakening of the oceanic carbon sink could potentially offset much of the carbon sequestered on land. In contrast, during glacial times, enhanced dust supply to the ocean could have ‘fertilized’ the biota and driven atmospheric CO2 lower. Dust might even play an active role in driving climatic change; since changes in dust supply may affect climate, and changes in climate, in turn, influence dust, a ‘feedback loop’ is formed. Possible feedback mechanisms are identified, recognition of whose operation could be crucial to our understanding of major climatic transitions over the past few million years.