The Sky Looks Awesome Because of Microbes in the Clouds

What does that cloud look like? A bright glob of phytoplankton.

Gemma Stiles

If you’ve ever stared up and thought, “Wow, the sky looks pretty brilliant today!” you can thank tiny critters called phytoplankton for that. A new study illustrates the important role these tiny microbes play in cloud formation in the Southern Ocean.

Basically, phytoplankton — microscopic in size, about twice the width of a human hair — are flung out of the ocean and into the air by heavy gusts of wind and become integrated in cloud formation way above the water’s surface. As part of the cloud, phytoplankton can help facilitate water condensation in ways that create brighter clouds that reflect greater amounts of sunlight.

And you can thank bigger blooms of plankton in the summer for the pretty view in the hot months. “In the summer, we get about double the concentration of cloud droplets as we would if it were a biologically dead ocean,” said study co-author Daniel McCoy of the University of Washington in a press release.

Phytoplankton are already known to play a big role in mitigating the effects of climate change. They help to reduce the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide levels for photosynthesis by nearly 50 percent. Yet, the new research suggests another way they help stabilize the earth: In making clouds brighter, phytoplankton in the Southern Ocean help reflect an average of 4 watts of incoming solar radiation per square meter back out to space.

Unfortunately, higher carbon dioxide levels are warming up our oceans, killing off the plankton populations that help keep those very levels in check. The study raises questions about how we might be able to better use phytoplankton to attack climate change through both carbon dioxide reduction and solar reflection via brighter clouds — but it will take some more innovative solutions to help bolster those populations to a point where they could really put a dent in warming temperatures.

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