This Ocean Lab Is Uncovering the Mysterious Link Between Microbes and Climate

Studying marine aerosols in the field is extremely tricky, so scientists at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography have brought the complexity of the ocean—complete with real waves—into the lab. Check out The Swim, now streaming on Discovery+
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For decades, scientists have speculated that there is a link between ocean microbes, cloud formation, and ultimately, climate. But the logistics of studying marine microbes in their native environment is hard. So an ambitious team of scientists at UCSD is trying to crack that problem by bringing the ocean into the lab to study its biological, physical, and chemical complexity like never before.

This “ocean-in-a-lab” at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, is a 33-meter long pool that mimics the action of real waves. The tank is enclosed and clean air is pumped in over the channel, allowing the isolated study of aerosol spray and gases, which could include viruses, bacteria, and phytoplankton.

The first way marine aerosols form is through sea spray. When waves break at the ocean’s surface, bubbles burst, and sea spray containing salt and all those little microbes go airborne. These marine aerosols can affect the formation of clouds over the ocean. They act as “seeds” that water vapor and ice can cling to, condensing into tiny droplets that can eventually become clouds. some types of aerosols can make clouds that are bright and white, cooling things down. So aerosols can have a really big impact on the temperature of the planet. It’s one of the reasons the ocean is known as the planet’s thermostat, because it plays a large role in regulating climate.

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