What does the salty sea air put in our clouds?

If you get close to the ocean, you can smell it. That salty odor is distinct, and carried by sea spray spritzing into the air.

But there’s more than salt in the sea spray. There’s phytoplankton, bacteria and viruses — living things that help make up the entire ocean and change the chemistry of the water. Ocean mists do more than dampen beaches, says atmospheric chemist Kimberly Prather of the University of California, San Diego. Ocean aerosols also seed clouds, and they could affect climate change and our weather, she said.

“The single largest uncertainty in climate change is how to aerosols affect clouds and climate,” Prather said.

Prather and University of Iowa chemist Vicki Grassian are trying to understand what role sea-born aerosols play in making our weather and our climate. To do so, they’ve tried to recreate the ocean in their lab. They know that phytoplankton, bacteria and viruses change the chemical composition of the sea. With their laboratory, they hope to follow those chemical changes from the depths of the ocean, to sea spray and straight into the clouds. They hope to incorporate their data into computer climate models.

Miles O’Brien has more on this story for the National Science Foundation series “Science Nation.”*

*For the record, the National Science Foundation is also an underwriter of the NewsHour.