Tiny Planktons ‘Brighten’ Clouds-That Cool The Earth

A new study, published in the journal Science Advances reveals how tiny oceanic planktons can play a huge role in influencing the formation of brighter clouds – which are capable of reflecting more sunlight. Unbelievable as it sounds, Susannah Burrows, a climate scientist from the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory,explains the bizarre phenomenon: most of the tiny planktons drifting on the surface of the Southern Ocean lead to brighter clouds by releasing gases which transform the atmosphere.

According to the authors of the study, “Biogenic sources are estimated to increase the summertime mean reflected solar radiation in excess of 10 W m-2 over parts of the Southern Ocean, which is comparable to the annual mean increases expected from anthropogenic aerosols over heavily polluted regions of the Northern Hemisphere.”

Planktons (singular plankter) are a diverse group of organisms that live in the water column of large bodies of water and that cannot swim against a current. They provide a crucial source of food to many large aquatic organisms, such as fish and whales. These organisms float or drift in great numbers on the surface of fresh or saltwater generating multiple airborne gases. According to scientists, these gases once combined with the organic matter impact on the formation of brighter clouds.


The team of biologists from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Washington used satellite data and computer simulations of large areas of the Antarctica – discovering that the aerosols and airborne droplets generated by marine organisms nearly double amount of cloud droplets in the atmosphere during the summers – thereby increasing the amount sunlight that gets reflected back into the air.

How does the Plankton do it?

According to the researchers, planktons and other drifting organisms influence the formation of bright clouds in two ways:

– Firstly, marine organisms such as the phytoplankton coccolithophores and Sulfitobacter bacteria among others produce gases such as Sulfitobacter bacteria whose particles seed water cloud droplets.

– The second way is the bubbly scum of organic matter which gets released into the atmosphere as small particle droplets.

The study’s authors state how important the study is, because it plays am influential role in the Earth’s climate, and the phenomenon over a year period could up the brightness of sunlight that reflects to around 4 watts of solar energy per square meter.


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