UW research suggests more complicated connection between plankton and clouds than originally thought The Badger Herald

While humans bear much of the responsibility for climate change, one entity much smaller than humans has more impact on the environmental crisis than most realize – marine plankton.

For years, scientists have understood that plankton has an impact on cloud formation. According to a item of Daily science, marine plankton are microscopic organisms which, in any given year, produce 20 million tonnes of sulfur through their respiration. The specific form of sulfur that is released into the air is called dimethyl sulfide, or DMS.

Previous research studies have shown that the release of this sulfur into the atmosphere provides a basis for cloud formation. But groundbreaking research at the University of Wisconsin has found that these previous studies may not give the complete picture.

This new search suggests that most of the DMS emitted into the air does not strictly allow the formation of new clouds, as the majority goes to pre-existing clouds, changing the fundamental understanding of the role of these tiny organisms.

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The UW study suggests that the process of cloud formation, which was previously thought of as a simple, linear cycle, is a more complicated process that may not be as straightforward as previously thought.

Tim Bertram, professor of chemistry at UW and principal investigator of the study, worked with others to learn more about the process of cloud formation and marine plankton.

“We have known for a long time, as a scientific community, that plankton on the ocean surface creates reduced sulfur compounds, and one of them is this dimethyl sulfide molecule,” Bertram said. “It’s responsible for a lot of things, including the smell of the sea. For this reason, there has been a long-standing interest in what happens to this molecule when it is centered on the ocean surface.

The Daily science The article explains that DMS does not go directly from marine plankton into the atmosphere. Instead, the sulfur released by the plankton first turns into a molecule called HPMTF.

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Ultimately, the loss of DMS results in a lower rate of cloud formation because the majority of it goes into clouds that already exist in the atmosphere. The implications of this have the potential to be large-scale – affecting virtually the entire planet, according to the article by Daily science.

a item of The conversation explains the enormous impact of microscopic plankton on the climate of the earth as a whole. Marine plankton help keep temperatures on Earth cooler by allowing clouds to form that reflect sunlight back into space.

Although understanding of the science behind DMS and cloud formation has changed thanks to UW’s research, Bertram said research and findings on the subject are still relatively new.

The direct impact of what this information means on climate change is still largely unknown and an exact conclusion has yet to be drawn – but this is, hopefully, the next step, Bertram said.

“I think the jury’s out on the effects, right, and I certainly don’t want to overestimate our results,” said Bertram. “For me, this is the next question that needs to be addressed. I think that [the] The paper shows that the formation of new particles, and therefore new clouds, will be less given what we have learned in this study.

Gordon Novak, a researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was a UW graduate student who worked alongside Bertram and helped create the analysis for this study.

Novak said he was always interested in oceanic and atmospheric interactions, and when there were discrepancies in existing knowledge about cloud formation, he decided to jump on the research topic with other scientists who became fascinated with DMS.

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“My research, in general, has focused on gas emissions from the ocean to the atmosphere and their impact on atmospheric chemistry,” Novak said. “Then, along with the folks at NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, they took part in this large-scale aerial search campaign where they flew this DCA plane filled with a bunch of instruments all over the place. the oceans of the world. “

Bertram said the next step is to integrate the chemistry into a climate model to see how important these new findings can be.

Novak and Bertram agree that it is too early to know exactly what evolved chemical understanding means in terms of climate change, but they both agree that there are many unanswered questions for researchers to explore.

While there have been advances in understanding plankton and its role in cloud formation, one thing remains clear: there is still a lot of work to be done, especially when it comes to learning the implications. of these new findings on climate change.

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