back to article What makes our planet's clouds? Tiny INVISIBLE CREATURES. True story

How are clouds formed on Earth? If you didn't answer "tiny marine organisms floating in the sea, perhaps better known as one of the main foods consumed by blue whales," then you were wrong. Boffins at the University of Washington (UoW) and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory believe that microscopic organisms drifting in …

  1. x 7

    ""The dimethyl sulfide produced by the phytoplankton gets transported up into higher levels of the atmosphere and then gets chemically transformed and produces aerosols further downwind, ......."

    OK so the obvious products of DMS reacting in the atmosphere are going to be dimethyl sulphate (toxic as heck), dimethyl sulphite, methyl methanesulphonate (carcinogenic) and - most noticeably sulphurus / sulphuric acid (acid rain)

    Maybe instead of blaming coal burning for acid rain we should be considering killing off maritime plankton instead

    1. Grikath

      well yeah.. except there's the matter of total amount, concentration, and the fact that the classic "acid rain" problem occurred in the northern hemisphere, in places where the stuff ordinarily would not land even if there were algal blooms on that scale in the Atlantic/North Sea.

      1. x 7

        "in places where the stuff ordinarily would not land "

        How do you know that? This is supposedly original research and it hasn't been tested in the Altantic (or northern hemisphere) yet, so may well be applicable. Theres a lot of plankton in the Atlantic, especially after the whale slaughtering of past centuries, and the systemic fish extermination happening now.

        Stop fishing and you'll stop acid rain.

        1. This post has been deleted by its author

      2. Dan Paul

        Plankton grow EVERYWHERE Grikath!

        Maybe not in huge "blooms" but they are present in every ocean on earth. Although, you may consider that there is a reason why so many marine mammals migrate to the Northern Hemisphere. These plankton blooms get eaten by larger and larger animals until the anchovies, krill and sardines become food for the whales and dolphins.

        FWIW, the majority of "man made" acid rain causing sulphur oxides, come from places like China, South America (Mostly Brazil) and India now. THEY refuse to control their stack and auto emissions like we have for 30+ years here in the USA or Britain. THEY don't refine the sulphur out of their fuels like we have done already. They burn high sulphur coal and BAGAS & wood scraps in utility plants.

    2. Will Godfrey Silver badge

      I guess you don't like ghoti

      1. Reliance

        For Dinner, yes. Breakfast, no.

    3. Martin Budden Silver badge
      WTF?

      Did you just seriously suggest "killing off maritime plankton"??????

      1. x 7

        If it stops acid rain, why not?

  2. Little Mouse

    I was hoping for a story about glow-in-the-dark Sea Monkeys

    Never mind. I'll wait.

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: I was hoping for a story about glow-in-the-dark Sea Monkeys

      Or maybe glow-in-the-dark-shrimp so that one can find them on the plate in darkened... err.. mood lit... restaurants?

  3. Pompous Git Silver badge

    Original Research?

    The cloud/plankton/DMS feedback system was part of my first year geology course @ UTAS a decade ago. Given that what's in the textbooks is usually at least 30 years old and thus thoroughly corroborated, the only thing new here is that it's being quantified via satellite observations.

    1. x 7

      Re: Original Research?

      thats interesting, I wondered if it was a known phenomenon but hadn't come across it personally before. Isn't it strange how many of the science stories run by The Register turn out not to be "new" news? The fact that mosquitos are attracted to CO2 was another this week......

      Is it bad luck on the part of what El Reg select to report? Or is there really a lack of real new science out there?

      1. Pompous Git Silver badge

        Re: Original Research?

        There's a problem with climatology being a sub-discipline of several disparate disciplines: geology, meteorology, history, archaeology, geography, atmospheric physics etc. Current climatologists are often woefully ignorant of prior climatological studies because they were published in the journals of another major discipline. So no, not El Reg's fault. Perhaps a lack of due diligence on the part of the researchers...

        1. Mike Richards Silver badge

          Re: Original Research?

          Except in this case we can firmly say 'the journo done it', the original CLAW paper is referenced in the new work.

    2. arctic_haze

      Re: Original Research?

      You mean the CLAW hypothesis named after its authors: R. J. Charlson, J. E. Lovelock, M. O. Andreae, S. G. Warren. The second one is the famous Lovelock of Gaia hypothesis. The paper was indeed published long ago (in 1987) and it is known to the authors of the new study (it's their Ref. 10).

      However, it is one thing to postulate something and another to prove it with observation evidence. The CLAW hypothesis is being discussed ever since and no consensus has yet emerged. It even has been buried in a high profile paper 4 years ago: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature10580

      So this new paper is just another tiny part of a long dispute.

    3. Mike Richards Silver badge

      Re: Original Research?

      You're quite right, it's corroboration of the CLAW hypothesis dating back to 1987:

      Charlson, R. J., Lovelock, J. E., Andreae, M. O. and Warren, S. G. (1987) ‘Oceanic phytoplankton, atmospheric sulphur, cloud albedo and climate’, Nature, 326(6114), pp. 655–661.

      http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v326/n6114/abs/326655a0.html

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Cause and effect

    That correlation doesn't imply causation is a statistical truism that politicians and medical researchers often forget - does taking cannabis cause psychosis in some people or do some psychotics self-medicate with cannabis, for instance. Unless you can prove an actual causative mechanism there is always uncertainty - if the psychosis develops post-cannabis, the possibility remains that the user has been responding to early symptoms that haven't really manifested externally.

    The amount of plant life in a region is strongly correlated with rainfall. At first sight it's obvious - plants need water to grow, therefore more rain, more plant. But in fact plants are able to affect climate in sufficiently large numbers, so it isn't a simple cause and effect. If we could forest the Sahara, it would get more rainfall and possibly stay forested. Plankton affecting cloud formation is yet another case.

    Not hugely on topic, just something I find interesting.

    1. Paul Kinsler Silver badge

      Re: correlation doesn't imply causation

      And while on the subject of trying to disentangle the two...

      http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/soc/faculty/pages/docs/elwert/Elwert 2013.pdf

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Global warming help?

    If you wanted to cool the oceans, finding a way to increase the number of these would help. Any idea whether they are present in larger or smaller numbers in warmer waters?

    1. Pompous Git Silver badge

      Re: Global warming help?

      Plankton are far more numerous in the nutrient-rich, cold, upwelling waters near the poles than they are in nutrient-depleted warmer waters. It's feasible to increase the plankton population in warmer waters by supplying sufficient iron (the nutrient in shortest supply), but I suspect that would increase the DMS aerosol, causing increased cloudiness and a limit to plankton population. It's a negative feedback system. Positive feedback systems in climate appear to reside inside computer models!

      1. Paul Kinsler Silver badge

        Re: but I suspect that would increase the DMS aerosol, ...

        Suspicion doesn't imply causation :-)

    2. Mike Richards Silver badge

      Re: Global warming help?

      More phytoplankton in the water would be a bad thing. They might take up some additional carbon from the atmosphere and create more clouds - but - they'd kill the oceans in the process.

      When the plankton decay their bodies are consumed by oxygen-metabolising bacteria. Which is fine in a normal, ventilated ocean. However, as plankton populations increase and oceans warm, you run into a hard limit on the availability of oxygen. Not just that more is being consumed, but also that warmer surface waters hold less oxygen, but that there is less overturning and mixing of oxygenated surface waters because of increased temperature driven stratification. In high latitudes where most deep sea ventilation takes place you get a double hit from increased temperatures driving greater productivity and fresher waters from ice melt refusing to overturn.

      As oxygen levels fall in deeper waters, conditions favour sulfur metabolising bacteria whose byproduct is hydrogen sulfide - highly toxic to bottom-dwelling communities, and who have the effect of allowing phosphorus and nitrogen to remain in the water column rather than being trapped in sediments. These two elements allow for increased productivity which keeps pushing oxygen levels to the floor.

      These are called euxenic conditions which are like the eutrophied ponds you find at this time of year, they are are nowadays found in restricted bodies of water such as strongly stratified lakes, fjords and the Black Sea; but the geological record shows a very strong correlation between global euxenia, high temperatures (from delta 18-O) and high carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and oceans (from CCD reconstructions and 12-C/13-C). The last big one was during the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum when it appears a good part of the world's oceans were anoxic at depth and in places euxenia may have reached the surface creating dead zones for larger organisms.

      There's some approachable papers here if you'd like to know the details:

      Diaz, R. J. and Rosenberg, R. (2008) ‘Spreading dead zones and consequences for marine ecosystems’, Science, 321(5891), pp. 926–929.

      Meyer, K. M. and Kump, L. R. (2008) ‘Oceanic Euxinia in Earth History: Causes and Consequences’, Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 36(1), pp. 251–288.

      1. The last doughnut
        Unhappy

        Re: Global warming help?

        So we are all doomed then.

        1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

          Re: Global warming help?

          So we are all doomed then.

          'fraid so. I reckon I've got another 40 years or so left.

      2. Reliance

        Re: Global warming help?

        So killing more whales, to increase the number of plankton, won't help any?

        I was kinda hoping...

  6. gaiatechnician

    Interesting because of why? Why would algae make clouds to block light to make the algae grow slower? So I do believe that they are doing it for a reason, but what is the reason? Maybe to block ultra-violet that damages them? The biotic pump theory (2006) states that In the amazon rainforest, clouds and precipitation makes and enhances low pressure over the continent and this sucks in moisture laden air from over the ocean to make it even wetter. AND the trees actively control this by pushing as much water vapor into the air as possible! All good stuff for the trees in the rain forest! Incidentally, meteorologists rubbished that theory because they say clouds make high pressure! Because cumulus clouds "expand". However, unknown to the meteorologists, (who read their knowledge from a book in university) high pressure is associated with clear skies, and low pressure is associated with cyclones, (and clouds), hurricanes (and clouds) and tornadoes (and clouds) and the amazon rain forest (and clouds). In the last year, scientists have found that fungi release spores and tiny specs of potasium salts high in the trees, and these provide points for isoprenes to condense and grown (isoprenes secreted from the trees) and the salt coated in isoprene is a perfect condensation nuclei for rain to happen! There is no indication in the article to show if the algae are making clouds that rain a lot or just clouds as sunscreen? So, which is it? In the amazon, it seems that the clouds are there to dry air, to warm it and pump the dry warm air up into the upper atmosphere. Somewhat like how the bubbles in a simmering kettle causes circulation of the water. Love to see discussion of my points. Incidently, in the "cloud in a bottle experiment, if you increase the pressure, the cloud disappears, so how can clouds make high pressure without disappearing? (just in case any of you go to the church of meteorology) Brian

    1. Denarius Silver badge
      Happy

      Rainforest, cluds, air density

      well gaiatechnician, we amateur meteorologist glider pilots have big textbooks with statements about moist air being lighter for a given temperature and pressure than dry air. So a damp local atmosphere surrounded by by drier air is likely to be displaced upwards causing a local inflow. What is more, the airmass behaviour has been measured in the real world. Supports your hypothesis. All I know is the lift is better with big fluffy thermal markers. You call them clouds. Judging from the astonishment of visiting pom pilots, the Oz clouds suck in a very nice way compared to the feeble uplift in the northern hemisphere.

      1. gaiatechnician

        Re: Rainforest, cluds, air density

        Can you aim me towards those tables of air density (dry air versus wet air)! That would be great. Also what happens when you get a small downpour? Do you get lift above the cloud or in the cloud or below the cloud. My theory of the clouds is that they are heat exchanges and dehumidifiers. So wet air goes up into a cloud and comes out top as dry air. Faster than it happens if hot dry air ascends without the "cloud lifter". This is actually a really important question. Nobody knows if the process of raining increases or lowers the air pressure! They actually debate it. I don't know if there is an experiment that will prove it one way or another but maybe one of the glider pilots needs to make a video for the meteorologists? Thanks Brian

  7. clayusmcret

    Well, that's it then......

    ......time to get rid of the whales.

    1. Preston Munchensonton
      Stop

      Re: Well, that's it then......

      Well, no, it's time to stop tinkering with every facet of the planet's ecology. Humans don't need to fix things, but instead we should just stop being retarded.

      I don't personally know if I can say with certainty that we've started the climatic and ecological trends seen at present (insert AGW flame bullseye here), but there's little doubt of the stupidity of the average human. Idiocracy, here we come.

      1. Reliance

        Re: Well, that's it then......

        However dumb people are, plankton are even dumber. And they modify the climate all the time.

    2. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: Well, that's it then......

      Errr wrong again. A recent study suggested that whales actually modify their environment too - by pooing at the surface. They bring nutrients up from the depths and fertilise the surface waters. When there were 2 million or so blue whales and god knows how many others fertilising the surface waters there must have been plankton blooms aplenty - and the fish to eat them. If we hadn't nearly wiped out the whales we would probably have an order of magnitude more fish to safely slap on our plates.

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