New research using NASA satellite data and ocean biology models suggests tiny organisms in vast stretches of the Southern Ocean play a significant role in generating brighter clouds overhead. Brighter clouds reflect more sunlight back into space affecting the amount of solar energy that reaches Earth's surface, which in turn has implications for global climate. The results were published July 17 in the journal Science Advances.
The study shows that plankton, the tiny drifting organisms in the sea, produce airborne gases and organic matter to seed cloud droplets, which lead to brighter clouds that reflect more sunlight.
"The clouds over the Southern Ocean reflect significantly more sunlight in the summertime than they would without these huge plankton blooms," said co-lead author Daniel McCoy, a University of Washington doctoral student in atmospheric sciences. "In the summer, we get about double the concentration of cloud droplets as we would if it were a biologically dead ocean."
Although remote, the oceans in the study area between 35 and 55 degrees south is an important region for Earth's climate. Results of the study show that averaged over a year, the increased brightness reflects about 4 watts of solar energy per square meter.
McCoy and co-author Daniel Grosvenor, now at the University of Leeds, began this research in 2014 looking at NASA satellite data for clouds over the parts of the Southern Ocean that are not covered in sea ice and have year-round satellite data. The space agency launched the first Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), instrument onboard the Terra satellite in 1999 to measure the cloud droplet size for all Earth's skies. A second MODIS instrument was launched onboard the Aqua satellite in 2002.
Clouds reflect sunlight based on both the amount of liquid suspended in the cloud and the size of the drops, which range from tiny mist spanning less than a hundredth of an inch (0.1 millimeters) to large drops about half an inch (10 millimeters) across. Each droplet begins by growing on an aerosol particle, and the same amount of liquid spread across more droplets will reflect more sunlight.
Using the NASA satellite data, the team showed in 2014 that Southern Ocean clouds are composed of smaller droplets in the summertime. But that doesn't make sense, since the stormy seas calm down in summer and generate less sea spray to create airborne salts.
The new study looked more closely at what else might be making the clouds more reflective. Co-lead author Susannah Burrows, a scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Lab in Richland, Washington, used an ocean biology model to see whether biological matter could be responsible.
Marine life can affect clouds in two ways. The first is by emitting a gas, such as dimethyl sulfide released by Sulfitobacter bacteria and phytoplankton such as coccolithophores, which creates the distinctive sulfurous smell of the sea and also produces particles to seed marine cloud droplets.
The second way is directly through organic matter that collects at the water's surface, forming a bubbly scum that can get whipped up and lofted into the air as tiny particles of dead plant and animal material.
By matching the cloud droplet concentration with ocean biology models, the team found correlations with the sulfate aerosols, which in that region come mainly from phytoplankton, and with the amount of organic matter in the sea spray.
"The dimethyl sulfide produced by the phytoplankton gets transported up into higher levels of the atmosphere and then gets chemically transformed and produces aerosols further downwind, and that tends to happen more in the northern part of the domain we studied," Burrows said. "In the southern part of the domain there is more effect from the organics, because that's where the big phytoplankton blooms happen."
Taken together, these two mechanisms roughly double the droplet concentration in summer months.
The Southern Ocean is a unique environment for studying clouds. Unlike in other places, the effects of marine life there are not swamped out by aerosols from forests or pollution. The authors say it is likely that similar processes could occur in the Northern Hemisphere, but they would be harder to measure and may have a smaller effect since aerosol particles from other sources are so plentiful.
The research was funded by NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy and a graduate fellowship from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.
Read the paper at Science Advances: advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/6/e1500157
Ellen Gray | EurekAlert!
Hidden river once flowed beneath Antarctic ice
22.08.2017 | Rice University
Greenland ice flow likely to speed up: New data assert glaciers move over sediment, which gets more slippery as it gets wetter
17.08.2017 | Swansea University
Whether you call it effervescent, fizzy, or sparkling, carbonated water is making a comeback as a beverage. Aside from quenching thirst, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have discovered a new use for these "bubbly" concoctions that will have major impact on the manufacturer of the world's thinnest, flattest, and one most useful materials -- graphene.
As graphene's popularity grows as an advanced "wonder" material, the speed and quality at which it can be manufactured will be paramount. With that in mind,...
Physicists at the University of Bonn have managed to create optical hollows and more complex patterns into which the light of a Bose-Einstein condensate flows. The creation of such highly low-loss structures for light is a prerequisite for complex light circuits, such as for quantum information processing for a new generation of computers. The researchers are now presenting their results in the journal Nature Photonics.
Light particles (photons) occur as tiny, indivisible portions. Many thousands of these light portions can be merged to form a single super-photon if they are...
For the first time, scientists have shown that circular RNA is linked to brain function. When a RNA molecule called Cdr1as was deleted from the genome of mice, the animals had problems filtering out unnecessary information – like patients suffering from neuropsychiatric disorders.
While hundreds of circular RNAs (circRNAs) are abundant in mammalian brains, one big question has remained unanswered: What are they actually good for? In the...
An experimental small satellite has successfully collected and delivered data on a key measurement for predicting changes in Earth's climate.
The Radiometer Assessment using Vertically Aligned Nanotubes (RAVAN) CubeSat was launched into low-Earth orbit on Nov. 11, 2016, in order to test new...
A study led by scientists of the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter (MPSD) at the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science in Hamburg presents evidence of the coexistence of superconductivity and “charge-density-waves” in compounds of the poorly-studied family of bismuthates. This observation opens up new perspectives for a deeper understanding of the phenomenon of high-temperature superconductivity, a topic which is at the core of condensed matter research since more than 30 years. The paper by Nicoletti et al has been published in the PNAS.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, superconductivity had been observed in some metals at temperatures only a few degrees above the absolute zero (minus...
16.08.2017 | Event News
04.08.2017 | Event News
26.07.2017 | Event News
23.08.2017 | Life Sciences
23.08.2017 | Life Sciences
23.08.2017 | Physics and Astronomy