Although abundant in the Earths crust, iron is present at trace concentrations in sea water and is a limiting nutrient for phytoplankton in approximately 40% of the ocean. Current literature suggests that aerosols are the primary external source of iron to offshore waters, yet controls on iron aerosol solubility remain unclear. Here we demonstrate that iron speciation (oxidation state and bonding environment) drives iron solubility in arid region soils, glacial weathering products (flour) and oil combustion products (oil fly ash). Iron speciation varies by aerosol source, with soils in arid regions dominated by ferric (oxy)hydroxides, glacial flour by primary and secondary ferrous silicates and oil fly ash by ferric sulphate salts. Variation in iron speciation produces systematic differences in iron solubility: less than 1% of the iron in arid soils was soluble, compared with 2-3% in glacial products and 77-81% in oil combustion products, which is directly linked to fractions of more soluble phases. We conclude that spatial and temporal variations in aerosol iron speciation, driven by the distribution of deserts, glaciers and fossil-fuel combustion, could have a pronounced effect on aerosol iron solubility and therefore on biological productivity and the carbon cycle in the ocean. ?? 2009 Macmillan Publishers Limited.