Diseased Ocean Microbes Could Be Messing With the Weather

A scanning electron microscope image of an airborne coccolith, which is produced by infected phytoplankton.
A scanning electron microscope image of an airborne coccolith, which is produced by infected phytoplankton.
Image: Miri Trainic

Our oceans are brimming with microscopic phytoplankton—plant-like organisms that contribute significantly to marine diversity. Tiny though they are, these sea critters, when infected with a particular virus, may influence atmospheric processes such as cloud formation, according to new research.


A ubiquitous, bloom-forming phytoplankton known as Emiliania huxleyi is plagued by a virus known as EhV. Back in 2015, scientists from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel discovered that EhV causes E. huxleyi to shed and release pieces of its shell into the air, leading to further infection.

In an update to this research, the same team has now found that these airborne emissions, known as coccolith, are released in such vast quantities that infected phytoplankton are likely influencing the weather. In fact, so much coccolith is being released into the sky that it has to be classified as a sea spray aerosol, or SSA. This latest research was published today in iScience.

Sea spray aerosols waft up into the atmosphere when bubbles burst in the ocean, and they can blanket upwards of 70 percent of the atmosphere. Individual SSA particles contribute to cloud condensation and act as a surface for chemical reactions. Because they’re so reflective, they can also help determine how much solar energy is absorbed by the Earth and radiated back into space.

The new research, led by Weizmann Institute earth scientist Miri Trainic, involved creating a miniature coccolith-producing system in the lab. In the real world, phytoplankton can cover thousands of square kilometers of ocean surface, but by creating a small model, the scientists were better able to quantify the effects of EhV on E. huxleyi and extrapolate from there. The researchers were surprised by the sheer quantity of particles produced, their high density, and their large size.

“Airborne coccolith surface area and volume increased substantially in our lab system during viral infection compared to sea salt particles, which are the most ubiquitous primary marine aerosol component,” Trainic told Gizmodo. “In fact, the surface area of coccoliths reached up to 3.5 times higher than that of sea salt aerosol surface area.”

Trainic says the viral infection of the phytoplankton induces massive coccolith production in the seawater, which leads to large coccolith emissions. Because these particles are relatively large, they can become the dominant component in terms of surface area and volume of all marine SSAs, she said.


Though the researchers were unable to prove it in a laboratory experiment, they suspect the enormous quantities of SSAs released by these phytoplankton influence the weather, especially cloud formation.

“It is well known that particles the size of coccoliths participate in cloud formation,” said Trainic. Moreover, once in the atmosphere, coccoliths can react chemically with other aerosols and water droplets in ways that may help increase water condensation within clouds, she said.


Looking ahead, the researchers would like to observe these blooms and their SSA emissions in the real world.

“The laboratory does not provide natural conditions and can never fully mimic them,” Trainic said. “While we are able to perfectly monitor the Emiliania Huxleyi-EhV interaction in the lab, we cannot reproduce the complexity of a natural population, nor can we reproduce the environmental conditions in the ocean.”


As a final note, this study could be of relevance to geoengineers in search of technological solutions to human-caused climate change and global warming. But it’s also a cautionary tale, one that speaks to the high degree of complexity involved in climate, and the important role played by biological processes. There’s still lots to learn about our planet and what makes it tick.



George is a senior staff reporter at Gizmodo.


Dense non aqueous phase liquid

This may fuck with the biogeochemical cycle, i.e. increase in transfer rate of CO2 from atmosphere to ocean and visa versa. Or not. Rate of transfer of CO2 in vapor (atmosphere) and liquid (ocean) is dependent on temperature and surface area at the vapor/liquid interface (and that Henry’s law bullshit thing). Aerosols provide a giant amount of surface area and minimal resistance to transfer from water to vapor, i.e. CO2/water diffusivity doesn’t matter much since the liquid pathway dissolved CO2 has to travel is shortened.

Whether of not this is a net loss/gain of CO2 in the atmosphere doesn’t really matter, since we’re loading up the carbon cycle by burning the bejesus out of fossil fuels and fucking up carbon sinks on land and ocean. That is we’ll die from heat or starvation from killing off animal life in the ocean through increase acidification.

Cool paper I found on this subject:

Aerosol Indirect Effect on Biogeochemical Cycles and Climate

and the key points in the abstract:

The net effect of anthropogenic aerosols on climate is usually considered the sum of the direct radiative effect of anthropogenic aerosols, plus the indirect effect of these aerosols through aerosol-cloud interactions. However, an additional impact of aerosols on a longer time scale is their indirect effect on climate through biogeochemical feedbacks, largely due to changes in the atmospheric concentration of CO2. Aerosols can affect land and ocean biogeochemical cycles by physical forcing or by adding nutrients and pollutants to ecosystems. The net biogeochemical effect of aerosols is estimated to be equivalent to a radiative forcing of –0.5 ± 0.4 watts per square meter, which suggests that reaching lower carbon targets will be even costlier than previously estimated.

Chemical and petroleum refining engineers study aerosols and foams for overcoming rate controlled mass transfer as a means to improve crude oil to gasoline, etc. yields. Which in turn fucks up the carbon cycle.