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Bright Clouds

July 23, 2015

Marine microorganisms make clouds brighter and more reflective.




Satellites use chlorophyll’s green color to detect biological activity in the oceans. The lighter-green swirls are a massive December 2010 plankton bloom following ocean currents off Patagonia, at the southern tip of South America (NASA)

The cooling effects of ocean plankton. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Bright, fluffy clouds do more than just look pretty: they bounce sunlight away from the earth and out into space, cooling the planet. In the journal Science Advances, Department of Energy climate scientist Susannah Burrows and her colleagues report that summertime population blooms of phytoplankton in southern oceans make clouds brighter, by sending material up into the atmosphere.

SUSANNAH BURROWS (Department of Energy, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory):

So when you’re at the beach and you feel the spray from the ocean, there’s salt in that spray, and there’s organic matter that comes from phytoplankton and other little critters in the ocean.


Those materials act as nuclei on which water droplets can form, and clouds with lots of tiny droplets are brighter than clouds with fewer larger ones. The work will help scientists better understand climate change, and the cycles that affect it.  I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

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Tiny ocean life contribute to clouds directly, by being lofted up with sea spray, and indirectly, by producing sulfurous gas. ( Daniel McCoy / University of Washington)