THE seasonal occurrence of dust storms in East Asia can cause algal blooms in waters far from the Asian mainland, researchers in China have discovered.

In a study published in the journal Atmospheric Environment, researchers at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences said that iron carried in the dust can cause rapid growth of algae in coastal waters, most often along the coast of China – which is most affected by the seasonal dust storms – but sometimes as far away as Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines.

The occurrence of “red tide” in the Philippines, which renders shellfish toxic to humans, is a kind of algal bloom.

The researchers were tipped off to a possible link between large dust storms and algal blooms in 2010, when a massive dust storm blanketed Beijing and stretched as far eastward as Japan. At the same time, a large algal bloom formed off the coast of Shandong.

The algal bloom was thought to have been caused in part by iron carried in the dust, but no previous studies had investigated a direct link between the dust storms and algae growth, the research team of Dr. Tan Saichun and Professor Shi Guangyu explained.

Using simulations and data from the Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation (CALIPSO) satellite, the scientists were able to quantitatively estimate the contribution of dust deposited in the ocean to phytoplankton growth.

“Dust containing iron was the most important factor affecting phytoplankton growth and the deposition of iron via severe dust storms satisfied the increase in demand required for phytoplankton growth (115-291 percent),” the researchers said.

The most practical application of the research is better prediction of potentially harmful algal blooms such as “red tide” based on weather data from mainland Asia.