New Study Shows Desert Dust Key to Sustaining Arabian Sea’s Marine Ecosystem

A massive dust storm blowing large quantities of dust out over the Gulf and Arabian Sea (December, 2003). The dust eventually deposits at the surface of the seawater, bringing different chemical elements, such as iron, to phytoplankton in the surface layer of the Arabian Sea. Credit: Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC.

Nutrients provided by atmospheric dust coming from the desert area are essential to sustain high levels of marine productivity.

Press Release

Fast facts:

  • The study shows that nutrients from atmospheric dust and nutrient-rich deep waters are equally important for sustaining the marine ecosystem of the Arabian Sea
  • Desert dust has a positive impact on phytoplankton, which are critical to the Earth’s carbon cycle and play a crucial role in the overall health of the ocean ecosystem by helping marine life survive and reproduce
  • The study was published in Geophysical Research Letters journal

A new study at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) has shown that desert dust is key to sustaining the marine ecosystem in the surface water of the Arabian Sea. 

The study shows that nutrients such as iron, provided by atmospheric dust coming from the desert area around the Arabian Sea, is essential to sustain the high levels of marine productivity, in particular during the summer monsoon. The surface waters of the Arabian Sea have low concentrations of iron, making iron coming from atmospheric dust necessary to allow phytoplankton to uptake major nutrients.

The study was led by Senior Research Scientist at The Oceanography Laboratory of Villefranche-sur-Mer (LOV) and Visiting Scientist at NYUAD’s Center for Prototype Climate Modeling (CPCM) Cécile Guieu, and co-authored by CPCM's Senior Research Scientist Zouhair Lachkar and Post-doctoral Associate Muchamad Al Azhar; Research Scientist at The French Research Institute for Development (IRD) Olivier Aumont; Professor at Cornell University’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Natalie Mahowald; Senior Research Scientist at the Laboratory of Oceanography and Climate (LOCEAN-IPSL) Marina Levy; and Engineer at LOCEAN-IPSL Christian Ethé.

Commenting on the research, Guieu said: “In this region we encounter dust storms frequently and people usually associate dust with cars covered with dirt or reduced visibility. Dust contains nutrients and these small particles have a very positive impact for microscopic plant-like organisms called phytoplankton that live in the ocean. These organisms are very important for the ocean and for the people because they play a key role in removing carbon dioxide from the air and they are the base of the marine food chain.”


“Climate change is expected to affect both land aridity and surface winds in the region. This may lead to important future changes in the intensity of dust input to the Arabian Sea, and hence cause a potentially profound perturbation of its marine ecosystem.”

Senior Research Scientist Zouhair Lachkar

Phytoplankton in the surface layer of the sea rely on two important sources of nutrients to survive, develop, and reproduce. They get their first source of nutrients from the rich waters coming from below the surface layer of the ocean, which occurs along the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, while counting on the desert dust deposited from above the surface layer of the ocean as their second source of nutrients.

The study shows that in addition to the nutrient-rich deep waters of the Arabian Sea, dust deposition is equally important for the survival of phytoplankton in the Sea, and explains that these organisms would be half as abundant as they are without the iron absorbed from atmospheric dust.

About NYU Abu Dhabi

NYU Abu Dhabi is the first comprehensive liberal arts and research campus in the Middle East to be operated abroad by a major American research university. NYU Abu Dhabi has integrated a highly selective undergraduate curriculum across the disciplines with a world center for advanced research and scholarship. The university enables its students in the sciences, engineering, social sciences, humanities, and arts to succeed in an increasingly interdependent world and advance cooperation and progress on humanity’s shared challenges. NYU Abu Dhabi’s high-achieving students have come from over 115 countries and speak over 115 languages. Together, NYU's campuses in New York, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai form the backbone of a unique global university, giving faculty and students opportunities to experience varied learning environments and immersion in other cultures at one or more of the numerous study-abroad sites NYU maintains on six continents.