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Searching for the seeds of Arctic clouds
Monica Allen

Searching for the seeds of Arctic clouds

Editor's note: This is the sixth in a series Dispatches from the Arctic on the August science cruise by NOAA and partner scientists aboard the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy. Today's post is from Dr. Jessie Creamean of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory.

The Arctic Ocean is a bustling metropolis of life that ranges in size from whales the size of small ships to microscopic marine bacteria that are 300,000 times smaller than a basketball. In fact, there are billions of bacteria in Arctic waters that feed on waste from algae and other small organisms. These bacteria are typically not harmful to humans or other mammals but when ejected into the atmosphere by bubbles and waves at the ocean surface they can serve as “seeds” for forming ice crystals in Arctic clouds. This particular process is something the scientists currently don’t have a good grasp on.

Atmospheric scientists

Atmospheric scientists

Jessie Creamean's team of young atmospheric scientists on the Healy in the Chukchi Sea. They are from left to right, Nadia Colombi, University of California in Los Angeles, Emily Bolger, University of Miami,Creamean, Julio Ceniceros, University of Texas in El Paso, and Taylor Aydell, University of Louisiana in Monroe. Courtesy of Jessie Creamean

Understanding clouds and how they form is essential to understanding the Arctic climate. These clouds trap warm air at the surface like a blanket. There has been a continuous increase in cloud cover over the Arctic for the past two decades and this is driving big changes on land and in the ocean.

When looking up at the sky, a large fraction of the millions of tiny droplets and ice crystals that make up clouds are formed by particles in the air called aerosols. Aerosols such as bacteria win the race when it comes to forming cloud ice, and without them or other types of cloud ice seeds like dust or pollen, a cloud would need temperatures below minus 36 degrees Fahrenheit to form ice, brrrrr.

Although scientists understand the theory behind how cloud ice forms, mimicking this process in models to predict the amount of sunlight and heat that reach Arctic surfaces is difficult, mainly because it is challenging to take field measurements in the Arctic. This is the motivation behind our research: Where do the seeds for Arctic clouds come from?

Creating clouds in a lab

Creating clouds in a lab

Students in lab aboard the Healy conduct an experiment that simulates how a cloud forms ice from seawater samples, Courtesy of Jessie Creamean

This is my second time at sea on the Healy to attempt to answer this question. While on board, I am mentoring a motivated and savvy team of summer students to collect seawater and air samples to see what types of cloud ice seeds, called ice nucleating particles, are present and what types of processes and weather conditions lead to shuttling these particles from deep down in the ocean to the skies above. Together, we are analyzing hundreds of seawater and aerosol samples for ice nucleating particles, how many of them there are, where exactly in the ocean and skies they live, and how good they are at forming cloud ice.

This is the first time at sea for all four summer students. I hope this experience is something these emerging young scientists will remember as they progress in the scientific community and excites them for their careers to come!

To learn more about Dr. Creamean's research, go online for the 2017 Arctic Dispatches blog post “Is the Arctic getting cloudier?” 


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Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) - or "NOAA Research" - provides the research foundation for understanding the complex systems that support our planet. Working in partnership with other organizational units of the NOAA, a bureau of the Department of Commerce, NOAA Research enables better forecasts, earlier warnings for natural disasters, and a greater understanding of the Earth. Our role is to provide unbiased science to better manage the environment, nationally, and globally.


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