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Climate Change: Organic Waste In Sea Spray Triggers Ice Formation In Clouds

Sep 13, 2015 08:17 PM EDT
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Breaking waves send organic waste into the air along with sea spray. It turns out that the waste, which is from ocean life, can trigger ice formation in clouds, say researchers from the Arctic Research Programme. Phytoplankton, or micro-algae, produce the organic waste found in these airborne particles. This influences how clouds behave, and can factor into global climate, as researchers recently explained in a study.

"It has been speculated in the past that some of this biological material may trigger the formation of ice in clouds -- making them 'ice nucleating particles' (INPs) in the atmosphere. Now, we have clear evidence that marine biological material such as matter exuded from phytoplankton is able to nucleate ice and could do so in the atmosphere. This could be particularly important in the polar regions," Dr. Theo Wilson, lead author from University of Leeds, said in a news release.

An international team of scientists collected biological matter from the Arctic Ocean, Western Atlantic and North Pacific. When combining their samples with computer-modeled scenarios, they found that these airborne particles had the most impact in polar and remote ocean regions. Also, when they further investigated specific marine life forms in their lab, they found that some species of algae, such as Thalassiosira psuedonana, a common type of phytoplankton, released organic waster similar to the INPs that they found in oceans.

"Understanding the sources, fate and global distribution of particles which trigger ice formation in clouds is needed to not only improve our weather models, but also to increase the confidence we have in climate model predictions of what will happen over the coming centuries," Dr. Benjamin Murray, co-author from the University of Leeds, explained in a statement. "Understanding where ice nucleating particles come from is important for predicting future climate. For example, as the polar ice caps shrink (we are heading for another record Arctic minimum later this month) there will be more open ocean from which these particles can be emitted, and this marine source of ice nucleating particles might become more important."

Their findings were recently published in the journal Nature

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