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Under the Microscope: Sea spray may cause ice formation in atmosphere

TATIANA GUERRA/THE STATESMAN
Stony Brook professor Josephine Aller, above, looks through a microscope in her lab on Thursday, Oct. 15. She and her research team grew phytoplankton cultures. TATIANA GUERRA/THE STATESMAN

Every few weeks, Brianna O’Neill, a graduate student studying chemistry, will take a look at Stony Brook-related science and research news.

The ocean makes up two-thirds of Earth, and yet there is not a lot known about it. Professors Daniel Knopf and Josephine Aller and graduate student Wendy Kilthau at Stony Brook University and their international collaborators have discovered a biological phenomenon that occurs due to the thinnest, topmost layer of the ocean.

These researchers are looking into the biological effects of aerosols on the atmosphere. Aerosols are small particles that are released into the air as a spray. Sea spray is the fine mist that comes off the water when a wave breaks.

“The ocean is still so mysterious,” Knopf said. “Something in there may create something that has effects 10 kilometers away. We are filling a gap in knowledge.”

The major discovery is that phytoplankton, small biological microorganisms, are responsible for the emission of nucleating particles from sea spray into the atmosphere. Nucleating particles promote freezing in the atmosphere.

First, Knopf’s lab grew phytoplankton cultures, which would be used as a reference in later experiments. The layer of chemicals around the phytoplankton was able to stimulate ice growth, or nucleation. They then collected samples from the topmost layer of the ocean, the sea-surface microlayer.

Upon looking at the spectral “fingerprint” of the real world samples and comparing the samples to their phytoplankton cultures, they found a match. The topmost layer of the ocean contained the same chemicals that were able to nucleate ice.

Making the link between the presence of the nucleating particles and the organism responsible was Stony Brook’s part in this international collaboration. This bolsters Knopf’s desire to create an analytical database, or library, of these biological organisms and their effect on the atmosphere.

Knopf said he hopes that all of this will lead to the creation of better climate models and evaluation, before taking human intervention into account. This research provides the foundation to keep looking for more links between the ocean and the sky and to keep trying to unravel the mysteries of the ocean.

Those who are interested in learning more about Knopf’s research can listen to a scientific talk he will be giving on Thursday, Nov. 12 at 4 p.m. in Room 412 of the Chemistry Building.

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