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Researchers find new link between ocean microbes and atmosphere

The research offers a new lens through which to understand the ocean-atmosphere connection.

By
Brooks Hays
Microbes in the sea can affect the makeup of the spray created by crashing waves, ultimately influencing cloud formation. Photo by UPI/Shutterstock/Willyam Bradberry
Microbes in the sea can affect the makeup of the spray created by crashing waves, ultimately influencing cloud formation. Photo by UPI/Shutterstock/Willyam Bradberry

SAN DIEGO, May 18 (UPI) -- Researchers say the aerosols created by ocean spray can affect cloud formation and the way sunlight is dispersed across the ocean surface. A new study suggests microbes in the ocean could affect the chemistry of ocean spray, and influence the interplay between sky and sea.

As detailed in the journal ACS Central Science, scientists have demonstrated that bacteria on the ocean's surface can affect the molecular makeup of sea spray droplets. As microbes break down phytoplankton, they release proteins, sugars and lipids, which can become airborne when they're trapped in aerosolized water droplets created by breaking ocean waves.

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In a series of recent lab experiments, scientists at the Center for Aerosol Impacts on Climate and the Environment modeled the interactions between microbe-laden water droplets and the atmosphere. The goal for researcher Kimberly Prather and her colleagues was to determine how different microbes and their molecular byproducts might affect sea spray's ability to form clouds.

Researchers were able to recreate phytoplankton blooms by bringing some 3,400 gallons of natural California seawater into the lab. Different concentration of phytoplankton were tested in what researchers call an ocean-atmosphere wave machine.

The experiments showed that different concentrations of phytoplankton-feeding bacteria affect the levels of water-insoluble organic byproducts, which are launched into the air by bursting bubbles and can affect the composition and formation of clouds.

The research offers a new lens through which to understand the ocean-atmosphere connection. With more research, scientists will likely be able to build more accurate climate models -- accounting the effects of aerosolized microbes.

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