When widespread drought in Australia's vast interior desert was blamed for the eery, otherworldy red-orange dust storm which enveloped Sydney just weeks ago, many experts believed it to be a bad ecological omen. But new research looking at the effect the dust has had on sea life suggests that the storm may actually have been great for the environment.
Measurements taken at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science after the dust storm show a tripling of microscopic plant life, or phytoplankton, within Sydney Harbor and in the ocean at least 10 kilometers out at sea. The reason? All of that red dust was topsoil rich with nitrogen, phosphate and other nutrients, which essentially acted like fertilizer for the ocean.
And phytoplankton serve as the basis for the entire ocean food chain, which means the dust storm could lead to a boost in all marine life, including an increase in fish stocks.
Furthermore, and in a twist of ecological irony, researchers estimate that the blossoming phytoplankton captured an additional eight million tons of CO2, enough to offset a month's worth of emissions from a coal-fired power station. In other words, while global warming was to blame for the drought and subsequent conditions leading to the dust storm, it has also contributed to the very conditions which have boosted local carbon capture.
The findings are certainly an encouraging reminder of Mother Nature's ability to strike a balance.
Though, of course, this shouldn't excuse apathy and replace environmental activism with inaction. The massive dust storm was called a 'once in a lifetime' event, and it took only five days for phytoplankton levels to lower back to normal.
Furthermore, there are additional ecological concerns which follow some large algae blooms, such as oxygen depletion in the oceans leading to marine 'dead zones'. If human-caused environmental impacts aren't lessened, nature's response to find a balance might be more a symptom of a systematic problem rather than an easy fix.
Related on MNN: View a slideshow of Australia's historic red dust storm.