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Researchers Study How Ocean Microbes May Influence Climate
September 8, 2020

Oceans cover almost three-quarters of the globe, yet little is known about how gases and aerosols made by ocean microbes affect weather and climate, or how human-produced pollution could influence this process. Now, scientists report they’ve used an “ocean-in-a-lab” to show that air pollution can change the makeup of gases and aerosols that sea spray releases into the atmosphere and, in turn, potentially alter weather patterns.

The researchers presented their results, “Impact of ocean microbes on the composition of the marine atmosphere, clouds, and climate,” recently at the American Chemical Society (ACS) Fall 2020 Virtual Meeting & Expo.

“It’s surprising that we don’t know more about the central role of ocean microbes in controlling climate,” says Kimberly Prather, Ph.D., the project’s principal investigator. “They have the potential to influence atmospheric composition, cloud formation and weather. Humans can alter these natural processes in two ways: by changing the microbial community structure in the ocean, and by producing air pollutants that react with compounds that the microorganisms produce.”

Through natural biological processes, ocean microbes –– including bacteria, phytoplankton and viruses –– produce compounds that enter the atmosphere as gases or aerosols (tiny water droplets or particles in air that form when waves crash). In addition, the microorganisms themselves can be ejected from the ocean in the form of aerosolized droplets. Some of these particles can seed clouds, absorb or reflect sunlight, or otherwise influence atmospheric conditions and weather.

“There’s a standard belief that one way the ocean can regulate the temperature of the planet is through emission of gases and particles,” says Dr. Prather, who holds a joint appointment at the University of California (UC) San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the department of chemistry and biochemistry. “Some scientists refer to the ocean as the ‘planetary thermostat.’”

According to information, the team is now also exploring how water pollution –– in particular, sewage discharge and pollution run-off that empty into coastal estuaries and oceans –– can restructure microbial communities and affect human health, climate and air quality. Previous studies have examined how human pollution impacts water quality; however, Dr. Prather’s are the first studies focusing on how waterborne pollution that enters the surf zone impacts air quality and human health. Her research group is making measurements in the ocean and atmosphere in a region known to be impacted by pollution flowing in from a heavily polluted estuary. This project aims to understand which viruses, bacteria and other pollutants become airborne in the surf zone.

The researchers acknowledge support and funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) through the NSF Center for Aerosol Impacts on Chemistry of the Environment.

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