Salty Ocean Spray May Have a Major Impact on the Formation of Clouds and Climate

First Posted: Dec 29, 2015 04:11 PM EST

The salt spray from the ocean may have a dramatic impact on the formation and duration of clouds. Scientists have taken a closer look at cloud formation and how the ocean can affect it.

Cloud cover about 60 percent of Earth's surface at any given time. This makes understanding their formation an important part of understanding our planet's climate.

Sea spray is actually a unique, underappreciated source of what are called ice nucleating particles. These are microscopic bits that make their way into clouds and initiate the formation of ice, and in turn affect the composition and duration of clouds.

"The presence of these particles is critically important for precipitation and the lifetime of clouds, and consequently, for their radiative properties," said Paul DeMott, one of the researchers, in a news release.

Clouds have a dramatic effect on climate do to their ability to reflect solar energy and absorb terrestrial radiation. Their radiative properties are greatly influenced by the number, size and type of droplets and ice particles inside the cloud. These cloud particles can initiate from any number of sources of aerosols, which are particles suspended in the air. These aerosols can originate from desert dust, fossil fuels, and other sources.

In this latest study, the researchers used lab wave flumes that simulated how ocean waves send sea spray aerosols into the air. This allowed the scientists to study the biological and chemical makeupt and transformations of these particles.

So what did they find? The new research gives an answer for why global climate models have consistently underestimated reflected, short-wave solar radiation in regions dominated by oceans, particularly in the southern hemisphere.

"Our paper gives a clearer picture of the behavior of major classes of atmospheric aerosols in cold clouds-factors that need to go into global-scale climate modeling," said DeMott.

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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