A team of atmospheric chemists, led by Kimberly Prather and Kerri Pratt of the University of California at San Diego, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, sampled water droplet and ice crystal residues at high speeds while flying through clouds in the skies over Wyoming. Analysis of the ice crystals revealed that the particles that started their growth were made up almost entirely of either dust or biological material such as bacteria, fungal spores and plant material.
While it has long been known that microorganisms become airborne and travel great distances, this study is the first to yield direct data on how they work to influence cloud formation.
“If we understand the sources of the particles that nucleate clouds, and their relative abundance, we can determine their impact on climate,” said Pratt, lead author of the paper.
The effects of tiny airborne particles called aerosols on cloud formation have been some of the most difficult aspects of weather and climate for scientists to understand.
In climate change science, which derives many of its projections from computer simulations of climate phenomena, the interactions between aerosols and clouds represent what scientists consider the greatest uncertainty in modeling predictions for the future.
Aerosols, ranging from dust, soot, and sea salt to organic materials, some of which travel thousands of miles, form the skeletons of clouds.
The team demonstrated that both dust and biological material indeed form the nuclei of these ice particles, something that previously could only be simulated in laboratory experiments.
The findings suggest that the biological particles that get swept up in dust storms help to induce the formation of cloud ice, and that their region of origin makes a difference. Evidence is increasingly suggesting that dust transported from Asia could be influencing precipitation in North America, for example.
Paper co-authors include Paul DeMott and Anthony Prenni from Colorado State University, Jeffrey French and Zhien Wang of the University of Wyoming, Douglas Westphal of the Naval Research Laboratory in Monterey, Calif., Andrew Heymsfield of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and Cynthia Twohy of Oregon State University.