New Scientific Reports Add Proof That Tiny Bits Of Plankton Lofted Into The Air Create Clouds And Rain Drops
California’s drought could be resolved by restoring offshore ocean plankton pastures.
We all know that the main source of rain on this blue planet is all that water that resides in the oceans. A great deal of it is evaporating all of the time and that moisture the oceans give up blows in the wind and eventually falls as rain drops. There is nothing new about the role of oceans and rain… Right? Maybe it’s not so simple.
It now turns out that for a rain drop to form it needs a tiny speck of something like a mote of dust as it’s heart, upon which moisture in the air condenses and grows bit by bit into a wisp of cloud or if large enough into a raindrop or snowflake. But the best raindrop hearts are not mineral dust. So what might be the source of that nucleating speck? Here’s the wonder of it all.
Plankton Are At The Heart Of Rain Drops
The most effective specks upon which moisture in the air condenses turns out to be specks of plankton! Not the mineral dust that those of us who have given thought to what was at the heart of a raindrop. OK so if you aren’t new to this blog you’ll know why this is so exciting. Indeed there is a life-sustaining of romance, an eternal yin and yang, between land and sea as the gift of rain from the oceans that sustains pastures on land is returned by the land in the form of life-giving dust for ocean pastures.
A few years ago a masterful paper was published about the natural history of moisture in the air becoming clouds and rain. The authors Quinn & Bates tore a strip off the Gaian Lovelock “CLAW” 1987 hypothesis that the sulfurous gas dimethyl-sulfide DMS was how Mother Nature used the power of plankton to make clouds and rain. While dragging CLAW off-center state they do give even more solid credit to plankton being quite literally at the heart of rain drops.
Quinn & Bates showed how the key to cloud condensation nuclei, CCN, came ideally from the immense inventory of tiny natural specks ranging from 40-300 nanometers. These natural nano-particles abound in incredible abundance in the world’s atmosphere but are surely diminishing as ocean plankton pastures become ocean deserts.
New research (adding to the Quinn & Bates genre) was presented in San Francisco, at the big meeting of the American Chemical Society August 2014). It tells how the mix of dust in the wind that drifts across the Pacific Ocean from Asia is surely influencing precipitation in California.
Prather’s UC San Diego group is trying to pin down the origins of our most lucrative cloud making specks. The researchers start by pumping fresh, clean ocean water into huge tanks called wave flumes. They kick on a wave generator and collect the particles that are released and identify them.
They repeat these experiments using different mixtures of phyto-plankton to see which species release which particles. Even more it seems some of these spectral profiles are near-perfect matches with ice-accreting cloud seeding all-stars collected in flights over the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Prather’s research could be another step in a longer process toward better understanding the ties between land and seas. Given the collapse of ocean pastures and primary plankton productivity is especially severe in the Pacific it just might be this is limiting the amount of ocean specks that are being contributed to vital nucleating of clouds and rain drops. In doing so be a significant part of the problem with growth of droughty conditions in the west.
The tiny specks that nucleate the formation of wisps of cloud and ice are like a switch.
Prather said her team’s research is investigating the earliest stages of this mist and ice-forming process, trying to distinguish the different effects that different microbes, bacteria, and specks of plankton have when they are lofted high to where rain-bearing clouds form.
Experiments Prather and her team conducted in California’s Sierra Nevada produced conclusive evidence that different dust specks can change the amount of precipitation produced by clouds.
“Nobody kind of believed that they could change the amount of water or snow you get,” Prather said. “This was the first evidence that they could, in fact, change the amount of precipitation.”
“It’s like a switch. If these particles aren’t there, clouds just sit there and maybe rain a little bit,” Prather added.
“It’s clear that Mother Nature has developed very effective ways to seed clouds, so perhaps we could take some tips from her.”
Not all aerosol specks help generate clouds and precipitation, Prather admonished. In particular, human-induced aerosols like soot and combustion particulates actually work the opposite way, reducing the amount of precipitation clouds can form.
But when Prather said, “a lack of dust isn’t California’s problem right now,” she’d missed the authoritative reports that the West Coast used to rely on a steady stream of dust particles from Asia, but no more. The decline of that Asian dust is now well documented and dust producing regions of Western China and Mongolia become ever greener with grass nurtured by high and rising CO2. It takes between seven and 10 days for the dust to cross the Pacific Ocean, Prather added, and dust can circumnavigate the globe in a matter of weeks. What the western United States has been missing during this drought is the other main part of the equation: clouds that the dust can seed.
Something has gone missing that help make clouds. Which brings us back to where we started this article and the work of Quinn & Bates who have nailed that cloud formation side of the puzzle. It’s the plankton as well!
Without clouds, there is nothing for the specks Prather needs to seed and generate her beloved raindrops and snowflakes. But if scientists are able to gain a deeper understanding of which dust particles best form ice and which don’t, they may be able to maximize precipitation when clouds do form and stave off future droughts like the one that has befallen California.
More than 80 percent of California is in a state of extreme drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. Almost 60 percent of the state is in a state of “exceptional drought”—the most severe category.
Call To Action
Might it be that by restoring the greatly diminished ocean pastures to the west of California Gaia can be given a helping hand to help us. If we give back to the ocean and restore and revived ocean pastures will she bring the rain.
We know that restoring those vital plankton, fish, seabird, and whale pastures that ocean life will rebound immediately.
We’ve done it in the NE Pacific with our 2012 ocean salmon pasture restoration which is now shown to have returned Pacific salmon to historic abundance from Alaska to the Columbia River.