Take in a deep breath of salty ocean air and more than likely, you're also breathing in naturally occurring sea spray aerosols. But, there's much more in each of those tiny bursting "bubbles" than salt. They're also bursting with ocean life, from bacteria to phytoplankton—even viruses. Because sea spray aerosols seed clouds, they affect the climate.
With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), atmospheric chemist Kimberly Prather of the University of California, San Diego, and chemist Vicki Grassian of the University of Iowa are leading a team of scientists around the country who are working to better understand what role sea spray aerosols play in weather and climate change.
Prather says the single largest uncertainty in climate change is what we don't know about the effect of aerosols on clouds.
Prather and Grassian co-direct NSF's Center for Aerosol Impacts on Climate and the Environment, where chemists are recreating the ocean-atmosphere environment in the lab to study how chemical changes in seawater impact the composition and cloud forming ability of sea spray aerosols. Ultimately, the goal of researchers' experiments is to provide a more accurate representation of aerosol chemistry in computer climate models.
Explore further: Biological activity alters the ability of sea spray to seed clouds