Jan 23, 2018 | Updated: 09:54 AM EDT

Ocean Microbes and How They Affect Our Atmosphere in the Age of Climate Change

May 19, 2015 01:32 PM EDT

That restorative sea breeze you enjoy on your vacation is more complex than most of us realize. Now, researchers from the Center for Aerosol Impacts on Climate and the Environment (CAICE) have demonstrated that microbes in seawater influence our climate, shaping the ways that sunlight enters the ocean as clouds form. The study recently presented to the American Chemical Society shows that it is the microbes in the seawater that control the way sea spray enters into the atmosphere, and everything that follows that.

Kimberly Prather and her team found that as phytoplankton release many different molecules into seawater as bacteria break them down, and that as waves break these molecules become aerosolized into droplets of sea spray. The team hoped to link past studies on correlations between phytoplankton concentrations and the organic contents of sea spray by better explaining the factors that control the transfer of chemicals from ocean to atmosphere. Therefore they focused their work on chemicals including lipids, proteins, and sugars in their attempts to parse out discrepancies in past studies of the area.

The team imported 3,400 gallons of natural California coastal seawater into their lab's controlled ocean-atmosphere wave machine in order to experimentally recreate a phytoplankton bloom on a large scale. The research showed that seawater concentrations of less water-soluble substances like lipids were affected by variations in microbial dynamics.

Prather and her team indicate that their research will assist scientists in improving climate models. The work has shed new light on the ways that microbes in seawater interact to control the atmosphere above the sea.

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