Ocean microbes could influence the atmosphere, according to a new study. This new finding could alter how climate models are produced and interpreted, as well as our understanding of climate change.

Cool mist, like that felt on the faces of visitors to the beach, also plays an important role in the environment. This mist of water in the air alters how sunlight is reflected off water, and also plays a part in the formation of clouds. Microbes within the ocean are capable of altering the chemistry of water before it is driven into the air.

When photoplankton and other organisms are broken down by bacteria, the process can release proteins and other chemicals, including sugars and lipids (which include fats, waxes, and other materials). These materials can be released into the atmosphere in the mist, researchers determined.

A photoplankton bloom was created in the laboratory, in a wave machine containing 3,400 gallons of water collected from the California coast. Researchers found that microbes within the water were able to alter the chemistry of the mist driven into the air. This was especially apparent when lipids, which normally separate from water, were examined.

Sea spray aerosol (SSA) particles were found to carry lipids in greater concentrations when they were carried in bubbles, which burst through the liquid. These chemicals can have a significant influence on the environment, researchers report.

"Freshly emitted SSA are composed of both sea salt and organic material, and under certain conditions the organic species comprise a substantial fraction of the total particle mass, especially for smaller diameter particles," researchers wrote in a research article published by the American Chemical Society's Central Science.

Oceans cover more than 70 percent of the Earth's surface, and they play a vital role in determining how the planet responds to continued climate change, including global warming. Some of the greatest questions in how the Earth will respond to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases are centered on how the ocean interacts with the atmosphere.

Earlier investigations had attempted to find a correlation between the composition of sea spray and the prevalence of photoplankton, with mixed results. "This limits our ability to untangle the extent to which human activities versus the natural background have altered the impacts of particles on the global radiation budget and climate, and thus hampers assessments of future climate change," researchers wrote.

Kimberly Prather and colleagues from the Center for Aerosol Impacts on Climate and the Environment (CAICE) carried out the study, in an effort to understand the earlier inconsistent findings. They predict this research could lead to a new understanding of the complex interactions between the atmosphere and oceans. This information could assist climatologists in developing new, more accurate computer models of the climate, which could be used to better understand and predict the effects of global climate change.

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