A new trail to dust from receding Arctic glaciers began among a colony of Puffins on a small island off Iceland. For more than a dozen years, Joseph Prospero, a University of Miami in Florida atmospheric chemist who studies dust, had an aerosol-monitoring station on Heimaey Island, about 15 kilometres south of Iceland. This was far from the Caribbean, where Prospero for decades has studied wind-bourne dust transport from Africa to the Island of Barbados.
The Icelandic instruments, on a mound about 100 metres above the Puffin colony, often picked up feather debris, so he hadn’t planned to test for dust. Nearly two years ago, he learned that technician Lillian Custals actually had been measuring dirt found in collectors. Looking at the records that now date back five years, he saw intriguing spikes reflecting dust increases. Then he recalled satellite data showing dust plums in the Arctic. When he compared them, they matched. During recent decades, glaciers in Iceland have been retreating as they have in the Arctic. Further analysis shows the dust was largely basalt. “The dust events are associated with dust emitted from newly exposed glacial outwash deposits – which may be carried into the northern latitudes and into Europe by synoptic weather events,” he says. Such dust is being studied for possible impacts on health. Data on the newly found source of dust is being prepared for publication