In order to stop the global temperature from rising, scientists need to understand all the factors that influence the greenhouse effect.
Researchers at the University of Leeds in the UK have discovered that tiny marine plants directly influence the formation of clouds, and if those clouds will have an insulating effect on the atmosphere or if they will reflect more light back into space.
Feedback loops are an important concept in climate change, and they can be either positive or negative. For instance, when the greenhouse effect raises the atmospheric temperature, ice melts. Ice, since it is reflective, returns some energy from the sun back into space. With less ice, global temperature rise even more in response to the initial warming; this is an example of a positive feedback loop.
By increasing the temperature and therefore the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, however, a negative feedback loop is created. More trees will grow when there is more fuel (CO2) for them to use, and by removing it from the atmosphere, it has a cooling effect on the atmosphere.
The interactions between all the different positive and negative feedback loops determine the overall temperature of the earth’s atmosphere. Finding new loops to add to scientists’ climate models will increase their accuracy.
Clouds can be part of a negative or positive feedback loop when it comes to climate change, acting as insulation or reflecting the sun’s rays away from the earth.
The newly discovered marine plants excrete gel-like microscopic particles, which are carried by the wind into the air where they induce the formation of ice crystals within the cloud.
The amount of ice within the cloud affects its reflective properties as well as when and where the cloud will drop precipitation.
These microscopic organisms’ influence will only grow. Lead researcher Dr Theo Wilson explains that as arctic sea ice melts, it increases the area of exposed ocean water. Therefore, more plant matter ends up getting carried away from the water’s surface by the wind. In addition, since more sunlight is hitting the water where the ice used to be, the tiny plants will be able to grow more quickly.
Scientists need to understand the role these organisms play in climatic feedback loops in order to properly model climate and devise strategies for solving the problem.
Images (c) Theo Wilson, Steve Andrews