A recent study shows how aerosols formed by microbes in the ocean are contributing to climate change.
A new study published in ACS Central Science offers new insights into what exactly is driving climate change, and it’s likely coming from the oceans. Specifically, scientists have learned that the chemical byproducts of microbes in the ocean can become aerosolized, which affects the way clouds form and solar radiation is scattered throughout the ocean. According to R&D Magazine, the findings could have a profound impact on our understanding of climate change.
Dr. Kimberly Prather and colleagues at the Center for Aerosol Impacts on Climate and the Environment (CAICE) set out to examine how bacteria in the ocean can release different chemicals into the air. An aerosol is defined as a tiny solid particle or droplet of liquid carried by another gas.
The study specifically looked at the bacteria that consume phytoplankton, or microscopic algae that also float near the surface of the ocean. The bacteria produce chemical byproducts when they digest the phytoplankton. These byproducts can later become aerosolized by the force of crashing waves, which result in a lingering “sea spray.”
This sea spray coalesces into clouds, which dictate precipitation cycles and variations in the temperature. The team wanted to find out how the phytoplankton concentration in the water affects the organic content of the sea spray. Doing so would allow them to further refine complex climate models by taking organic cloud content into account.
To perform the experiment, the researchers imported 3,400 gallons of California seawater into a natural wave chamber, and analyzed the organic content of the mist created by the motion. The team found that certain chemicals like lipids were more likely than once believed to be transferred as an aerosol into the atmosphere.
Scientists have known that aerosolized particles can alter the climate in unforeseen ways, and this study reveals another source of small airborne particles. Dr. Prather hopes that her study will open the door to further research on bacteria’s contribution to atmospheric aerosols, and that it will ultimately allow scientists to more accurately trace changes in the climate.