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Plankton and Bright Lights: Cloud Studies near Antarctica

Jul 17, 2015 06:12 PM EDT

When people say, "You light up my life" and they're in the Southern Ocean, they might be speaking to plankton. That is, researchers at the University of Washington and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory believe that the rich biological life of some stretches of the ocean near Antarctica--and the tiny organisms in it--play a strong role in generating brighter clouds overhead. They recently published their findings in the online journal Science Advances.

The new research shows that the tiny ocean life forms produce airborne gases and organic matter that seeds cloud droplets, and that this can lead to brighter clouds that reflect more sunlight, according to the report.

"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 UW doctoral student in atmospheric sciences, in a release. "In the summer, we get about double the concentration of cloud droplets as we would if it were a biologically dead ocean."

The effect creates some definite energy: For instance, the increased brightness caused by the tiny sea life reflects about 4 watts of solar energy per square meter, the report says, according to the release.

The research began in 2014 when scientists looked 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 data was collected using an imaging spectroradiometer, or MODIS, an instrument NASA first used in 1999 to measure the cloud droplet size for all Earth's skies, a release said.

The study was funded by NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy and a graduate fellowship from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. 

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