Big, white, fluffy clouds fill the sky on every beautiful sunny day. They provide patches of shade for the Bright-eyed youngsters lying on their back in the grass dreaming about what shapes they see. But clouds do more than offer animal shaped entertainment and shade on a hot day. They affect the climate, influence the weather and help protect our planet from radiation. But where do clouds come from? Clouds, similar to some living organisms, start from a “seed”. These seeds are also called nuclei, or a single nucleus. One very unlikely little creature is responsible for helping supply these nuclei for cloud formation and create almost 20% of all clouds! (Bergman)
Phytoplankton are tiny green marine organisms that utilize pigmented chemical chlorophyll, which gives them their green color, which allows them to absorb sunlight (Goldbaum). One might wonder how a tiny organism could make such an impact on cloud production. There are trillions of phytoplankton floating throughout the ocean, covering almost 70% of Earth’s surface (Bergman). That’s a lot of tiny green cloud-making machines! Phytoplankton are producers of aerosols or emissions that are taken up into the atmosphere directly from the ocean’s surface. Aerosols are gas particles that can be produced from multiple sources. One such aerosol is dimethyl sulfide gas, which once it reaches the atmosphere is transformed into sulfate. Sulfate is a common cloud nucleus and aids in cloud condensation (Gramling).
Another large contributor of aerosols that make their way into our atmosphere is sea spray. Sea spray is comprised of organic matter, some of which is a byproduct of phytoplankton, coating the bubbles created by the waves and churning of the ocean. When these bubbles pop the organic matter is then released into the atmosphere and becomes nuclei for cloud formation (Gramling). However, not all aerosols become cloud nuclei. The chemical and physical composition of each aerosol determine whether or not they will become a cloud (Goldbaum). After these aerosols convert nuclei, water vapors develop an attraction to them and start to condense around the individual nuclei, thus forming clouds. Scientists have found that areas of the ocean containing large populations of phytoplankton corresponded with locations more heavily water droplet saturated clouds (Goldbaum). The more phytoplankton, the more clouds!
These tiny creatures are making a gigantic impact on cloud production throughout the Earth’s atmosphere, and in turn phytoplankton are also influencing climate, weather patterns and radiation levels. Clouds are an often overlooked and taken for granted. Who would have thought that clouds are born on the sea’s surface? The next time you’re taking walk on a beautiful day, remember to thank those tiny green phytoplankton for the fluffy clouds!
Bergman, Jennifer. “Sulfate Aerosols from Plankton.” Windows to the Universe. National Earth Science Teachers Association, 27 Oct. 2008. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.
Goldbaum, Elizabeth. “Sea Creatures Make Brighter Clouds to Cool the Earth.”Live Science. Purch, 18 July 2015.
Gramling, Carolyn. “Tiny Sea Creatures Are Making Clouds Over the Southern Ocean.” Science Magazine. American Association for the Advancement of Science, 03 Feb. 2016. Web. 13 Oct. 2016