A microbe albedo effect for ocean sunlight absorption

From MIT, something surprising. Like alignment of iron atoms in a magnet, microbes in seawater can align and change the albedo. It makes me wonder how much seawater can be warming by light absorption in ENSO events, which change currents. Perhaps there is a contribution, I don’t know, but it is very interesting.

Scientists say ocean currents cause microbes to filter light

Adding particles to liquids to make currents visible is a common practice in the study of fluid mechanics, one that was adopted and perfected by artist Paul Matisse in sculptures he calls Kalliroscopes. Matisse’s glass-enclosed liquid sculptures contain an object whose movement through the liquid creates whorls that can be seen only because elongated particles trailing the object align with the direction of the current; light reflects off the particles, making the current visible to the viewer.

Researchers at MIT recently demonstrated that this same phenomenon is responsible for the swirling patterns scientists typically see when they agitate a flask containing microbes in water; many microbes are themselves elongated particles that make the whorls visible. More importantly, they say this phenomenon occurs in the ocean when elongated microbes caught in a current align horizontally with the ocean surface, affecting how much light goes into the ocean and how much bounces off as backscatter.

Because many ocean microbes, like large phytoplankton, have either an elongated shape or live in communities of long chains, this orientation to ocean currents could have a substantial effect on ocean light — which in turn influences photosynthesis and phytoplankton growth rates — as well as on satellite readings of light backscatter used to inform climate models or assess algal blooms.

In a quiescent ocean, phytoplankton are randomly oriented and light filters through easily. This random arrangement is usually assumed in models of light propagation in the ocean and in satellite readings. But fluid flow can change things.

“Even small shear rates can increase backscattering from blooms of large phytoplankton by more than 30 percent,” said Roman Stocker, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT and lead author on a paper about this work. “This implies that fluid flow, which is typically neglected in models of marine optics, may exert an important control on light propagation, influencing the rates of carbon fixation and how we estimate these rates via remote sensing.”

Another consideration is microbial size. Very small microbes (less than 1 micrometer in diameter) don’t align with the ocean current no matter what their shape. “These very small things don’t align because they are too vigorously kicked around by water molecules in an effect called Brownian motion,” said Stocker, who studies the biomechanics of the movements of ocean microbes, often in his own micro-version of a Kalliroscope called microfluidics. He recreates an ocean environment in microfluidic devices about the size of a stick of gum and uses videomicroscopy to trace and record the microbes’ movements in response to food and current.

In this case, however, the research methodology was observation, followed by mathematical modeling (much of which was handled by graduate student Marcos, who created a model that coupled fluid mechanics with optics), and subsequent experimentation carried out by graduate students Mitul Luhar and William Durham using a tabletop-sized device.

But the impetus for the research was an observance of swirling microbes in a flask of water and a question posed by Justin Seymour, a former postdoctoral fellow at MIT. “Justin walked up to me with a flask of microbes in water, shook it, and asked me what the swirls were,” said Stocker. “Now we know.”

In addition to Seymour, who is now a research fellow at the University of Technology Sydney, other co-authors on the paper are Marcos, Luhar and Durham; Professor James Mitchell of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia; and Professor Andreas Macke of the Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research in Germany.

Next steps: The researchers plan to test this mechanism in the field in a local environment suitable for experimentation, most likely a nearby lake.

Funding: Funding was provided by grants from the National Science Foundation and the Australian Research Council and by a Hayashi Grant from MIT’s International Science and Technology Initiatives Program.

Source:Microbial alignment in flow changes ocean light climate,” by Marcos, Justin Seymour, Mitul Luhar, William Durham, James Mitchell, Andreas Macke and Roman Stocker, in PNAS Early Edition online Feb. 21, 2011.

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40 Responses to A microbe albedo effect for ocean sunlight absorption

  1. ferd berple says:

    Evolution tells us that those lifeforms best able regulate the climate to create advantanges for themselves will out compete those that cannot. Over millions of years those same lifeforms will come to dominate the earth. Could it be that plankton are the true rulers of the earth?

  2. Latitude says:

    they say this phenomenon occurs in the ocean when elongated microbes caught in a current align horizontally with the ocean surface
    ==========================================
    Well yeah duh, currents run with the surface……..drag makes them face into the current
    ….they didn’t take into account the paper saying ocean plankton has decreased 40%

    REPLY: Heh. Funny! One paper get published and the whole AGW alarm world thinks plankton is on the way out over a 0.7C temperature rise in the oceans…when in fact plankton live in much greater temperature ranges. The loss of plankton isn’t supporetd by SEAWIFS imagery http://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/vis/a000000/a003400/a003451/index.html

    In fact it is booming. http://wattsupwiththat.com/2008/06/08/surprise-earths-biosphere-is-booming-co2-the-cause/

    -Anthony

  3. George E. Smith says:

    “”””” Source: “Microbial alignment in flow changes ocean light climate,” by Marcos, Justin Seymour, Mitul Luhar, William Durham, James Mitchell, Andreas Macke and Roman Stocker, in PNAS Early Edition online Feb. 21, 2011. “”””””

    So they just couldn’t contain themselves.

    How much would the message be changed in their paper title, if they simply omitted the last word ?

    Oh I get it; there’s that taxpayer funding they also have to do research on.

  4. R. Gates says:

    Very interesting…certainly worthy of further research. I’m also wondering what the link might be between albedo of seawater and the apparent dwindling of plankton as revealed in research published last year:

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=phytoplankton-population

  5. Ray says:

    Let me guess… the dangerous microbial concentration is 350 ppm? What a coincidence!!!

  6. JDN says:

    It’s still science by press release. Why not wait until it has been tried in a real system?

  7. crucilandia says:

    nice in the lab, but in the ocean 90% of bacteria is attached to particles (marine snow, EPS etc). Not even considering that a very small portion of the microbial population in the ocean water is composed of rod-shapped bacteria.

  8. Rhys Jaggar says:

    Any bets out there that catastrophic extinctions of phytoplankton herald step-change in climate?

  9. vigilantfish says:

    Paul Matisse is not the Matisse – he’s Paul Matisse, a 37 year-old modern artist working in new materials. Very few images of karilloscopes seem to be available online. Here’s one:

    http://www.kalliroscope.com/juices/rheoscopic_fluids.htm

    This is artwork being offered for sale for scientific purposes. Interesting.

  10. Latitude says:

    REPLY: Heh. Funny! One paper get published and the whole AGW alarm world thinks plankton is on the way out over a 0.7C temperature rise in the oceans…
    =========================================
    Yeah, but there’s a lot of people that take every stupid paper as gospel……..

    …and this paper is just as stupid as that other one

    With that mind set, I was just surprised they didn’t talk to each other……..

    My bad for not explaining it better

    This paper came out of MIT, the 40% plankton paper came out of Dalhousie.

    Dalhousie and MIT run a joint program………..

    Now you know…………………

  11. Algebra says:

    This alignment only occurs when you have laminar flow. It applies to any particle of sufficient size that possesses an aspect ratio.

  12. Peter Pond says:

    If a flask of scientists were to be swirled, would all the scientists align to the consensus?

  13. jorgekafkazar says:

    R. Gates says: “Very interesting…certainly worthy of further research. I’m also wondering what the link might be between albedo of seawater and the apparent dwindling of plankton as revealed in research published last year…”

    The dwindling has…dwindled.

  14. Max Hugoson says:

    Anthony:

    Recommend that Latitude be given NO latitude due to attitude. Having NEVER posted anything on RC, or any other AWG blog…to begin with, and having never posted something snarky (which of course, comes from not posting on those blogs!) on the “skeptic” side, (trashing the other side universally for what they publish), I have little sympathy for those that do.

    A appreciate your graciousness in posting counter papers, and comments. But I think that INDEED this is where civility must rule.

  15. BioBob says:

    DUH !! Next they will “discover” that the “Neuston” (life on, in or just below the water surface film) orientation also has effects on light absorption and refraction and is affected by wind and wave action. And then, in turn, these effects may have significant but unmeasurable input into global climate.

    I don’t know how some of these great wits ever got degrees. Global climate is incredibly complex and the more we know, the more we realize we just do NOT KNOW.

  16. Jeff says:

    again the “experts” are suprised at how little they understand about their field of study …

    what was the old “consensus” on this ? How dare they challenge it !!!

  17. Latitude says:

    Max Hugoson says:
    February 24, 2011 at 12:46 pm
    Anthony:
    Recommend that Latitude be given NO latitude due to attitude.
    =====================================================
    :-)…why didn’t you just say you want me to shut up

    ……..it would have been a lot simpler

    sorry, didn’t mean to hit a nerve Max, it was meant as a joke
    It was my fault for assuming that other people knew….

    I know better than to assume, it was just a slip up on my part………..

  18. Sarge says:

    This phenomenon should come as no shock to anyone with a background in optics or electronics – – as it is exactly how liquid crystal displays work, when coupled with a polarizing filter.

  19. Carl Chapman says:

    Wouldn’t the effect be only at the edges of the flow, unless the flow is turbulent? The article mentions “shear”. Within the body of the current, all the water is moving the same so there’s no shear to align the particles.

  20. Jimbo says:

    Climate scientists should just come clean and say with 95%+ confindence that they do not know whether manmade greenhouse gases are to blame for most of the recent warming. Gigo and unknown unknowns means they really can’t tell us the most probable temperature of the Earth in 89 years time!

    “We can’t think of anything else.”

    This is getting silly!

  21. vukcevic says:

    UV and particle radiation (particle radiation is a function of solar activity and the strength of Van Allen belt via the Earth’s field strength) could have far larger indirect contribution by controlling plankton volumes and in turn changing the oceans’ clarity and CO2 absorption.
    High UV/radiation = reduction in plankton = clear water = deeper penetration, more heat absorbed further down and retained = warming.
    Low UV/radiation = more plankton = water less clear = only surface absorption and night time re-radiation = cooling.
    Plankton is largest CO2 absorber, but also oceans are largest CO2 emitters, so if CO2 happen to be an important factor than:
    High UV/radiation = reduction in plankton = less CO2 absorbed = warming.
    Low UV/radiation = more plankton = more CO2 absorbed = cooling.

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/02/05/some-interesting-thoughts-on-antarctic-peninsula-warming/

  22. Jimbo says:

    Talking of small life affecting the planet see how resilient the oceans can be in regards to the US Gulf oil spill. Oil and methane were largely taken care of because natural oil seeps have occured for a long time now. Not perfect, but just shows you the Earth is more reslilient “than previously thought.”

    http://www.theresilientearth.com/?q=content/amazing-disappearing-gulf-oil-spill

    http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2007202,00.html

    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/331/6015/312.full

  23. polistra says:

    Maybe the oceans are just the LCD display in God’s laptop.

    More seriously, I’ve been wondering if the weakening geomagnetic field is causing the observed changes in plankton distribution. Many bacteria are magnetotropic, and seem to use the earth’s field to know which way is up in the ocean.

  24. ferd berple says:

    Well if plankton are falling in population, maybe they are causing the increase in co2. Aren’t planton responsible for most of the co2 -> o2 conversion?

    Didn’t the increase in CO2 start about the time they killed off the whales that fed on planton? Sounds like the plankton relied on grazing by whales to stay healthy, as happens with plants and grazing animals on the land.

    As the whale population was decimated, the plankton became unhealthy and decreased in number, leading to increased CO2 and AGW. Not caused by SUV’s at all, caused by elimination of the symbiotic relationship between whales and plankton.

    Even with an end to hunting, the whale population cannot recover due to the high volume of ocean going vessels and the collisions that result.

  25. Smokey says:

    ferd berple,

    John D. Rockefeller saved the whales. And now the plankton!

  26. George E. Smith says:

    Well so we have another multimillion dollar taxpayer grant basket that we have to keep filling. Yes I think the science is interesting; no I don’t think it is material at a time when the whole country is trillions of dollars in the hole, and the government is absolutely determined to not let private enterprise loose to try and close these monster budget gaps.

    So make a note of it as something to put on a back burner for some day when we don’t have something better to do with out tax dollars; like pursuing readily available energy resources; well of course Private enterprise can do that without any taxpayer dollars, if we just get the government meddlers out of the way.

    Now we not only have the administrative branch illegally usurping the legislative duties of the Congress; but now they are even usurping the duties of the Judicials branch and arbitrarily declaring things unconstitutional. That is why we have a judicial branch to rule on sonstitutionality.

    People think Moamar Khadafi is running amok; he’s got nothing on our dictator in chief.

  27. Latitude says:

    ferd berple says:
    February 24, 2011 at 4:54 pm
    Well if plankton are falling in population, maybe they are causing the increase in co2. Aren’t planton responsible for most of the co2 -> o2 conversion?
    =====================================================
    ferd, that was the running joke…

    If plankton decreased by 40%, that would account for all of the rise in CO2………..

    Now the running joke is you have two studies, one showing a 40% decrease in plankton, another showing plankton lining up to reflect/refract light…

    ….from two schools with a joint program that have obviously invested in plankton this year and need to get their money’s worth

    How long before one of them presents another paper connecting the two…

    …saying that reduced plankton levels are scattering less light, letting more light deeper causing the oceans to heat up! LOL

  28. ferd berple says:

    …saying that reduced plankton levels are scattering less light, letting more light deeper causing the oceans to heat up!

    It obviously does. That is why the earth heated up after the LIA. The elimination of whales and the resultant effect on plankton.

    The cause of the great reduction in whale population within the past 200 years is most likely?

    A) over-killing for whale products
    or
    B) global warming

    Well, whales were eliminated and the globe heated up. Which was the cause and which was the effect?

  29. Latitude says:

    Makes sense to me….

    We’ve been thinking it’s because the oceans are becoming nutrient poor,
    sequestering phosphorus and iron faster than it can be replaced.

    I’ll throw your whale theory out there and see if it sticks. ;-)

  30. This sounds like a very interesting experiment that will lead to other experiments that I would hope culminated in some real world empirical measurements.

  31. izen says:

    Latitude says:
    February 24, 2011 at 6:36 pm
    “I’ll throw your whale theory out there and see if it sticks. ;-)”

    I’ll raise the massive decline in fish stocks fished out by human industry over the last century.
    The removal of over 50% of the top predators alters the ecology enabling the smaller plankton eaters to dominate.
    Benthic bacteria rule….

  32. CRS, Dr.P.H. says:

    Here’s a decent little read on this complex topic, with a rather nice graphic showing the different trophic levels of the ocean’s surface biosystem:

    http://oceanworld.tamu.edu/resources/oceanography-book/microbialweb.htm

    Many motile bacteria have metallic iron granules, which are postulated to help them migrate according to the earth’s magnetic field. It is an amazing field, and the folks who are dedicated to studying this branch of science are rather amazing themselves! (I’m thinking of Dr. J. Costerton specifically).

    Good stuff: http://www.garfield.library.upenn.edu/classics1989/A1989AZ38900001.pdf

  33. Mister Ed says:

    George E. Smith says:
    February 24, 2011 at 5:02 pm
    Now we not only have the administrative branch illegally usurping the legislative duties of the Congress; but now they are even usurping the duties of the Judicials branch and arbitrarily declaring things unconstitutional. That is why we have a judicial branch to rule on sonstitutionality.
    – – – – – – – – – –
    Well … judicial review didn’t exist before 1803, Marbury v. Madison. The Constitution didn’t give this power to the Supreme Court; the justices created it for themselves.

    My take on a similar “executive review” is that it would even more important and more justifiable than judicial review if it were based on a President’s conscience-based belief that Congress was asking him/her to do something unconstitutional.

    But the day is long past when either legislators or presidents paid attention to the Constitutional phrase, “enumerated powers.”

  34. David Falkner says:

    I’ll be honest, sometimes all these studies seem like a giant exercise in tail chasing. We discover a new effect that throws the world on its head, but it is disputed by common sense and traditional science. After discovering this effect changes other factors in ways that lead to the outcome we originally threw out with the bathwater, it becomes a zero sum game. Has any scientific discovery in the past ten years really been that important? I am trying to think of one now, and aside from micro/nano technology, which I would argue was discovered a while ago, I can’t think of one.

  35. Jasperated Johns says:

    Kalliroscopes make fluid flow visible by suspending minute but shiny crystalline flakes of guanine (extracted from silvery herring scales) in a fluid of the same density as the crystals. The museum shop version uses the dry cleaning fluid perchloroethylene, while some larger models employ a dense solution of potassium iodide in water.

    _The_ Matisse was Henri, and if his grandson Paul yet lives, he must be closer to 77 than 37.

    I appreciate artiste Watts homage to environmental surrealism in artfully dodging of the implosion of ocean plankton species, but what is really needed is a statistical analysis proving temperatures must have declined since Dali’s day since melted watches have disappeared from the contemporary art scene.

  36. Tenuc says:

    Interesting conjecture, but until this effect is observed in the real world of the turbulent dynamic ocean surface layer then it remains just that – conjecture. It is good to see the authors of the paper are going to try to falsify it in the real world.

    Plankton has another important effect on to of change to albedo. It actually uses a proportion of the suns energy, thus preventing it being absorbed by the ocean at all.

    In our climate system a myriad of small changes add together and produce the behaviour we observe.

  37. George E. Smith says:

    “”””” Mister Ed says:
    February 24, 2011 at 8:49 pm
    George E. Smith says:
    February 24, 2011 at 5:02 pm
    Now we not only have the administrative branch illegally usurping the legislative duties of the Congress; but now they are even usurping the duties of the Judicials branch and arbitrarily declaring things unconstitutional. That is why we have a judicial branch to rule on sonstitutionality.
    – – – – – – – – – –
    Well … judicial review didn’t exist before 1803, Marbury v. Madison. The Constitution didn’t give this power to the Supreme Court; the justices created it for themselves. “””””

    Well thanks for the detail Mister Ed. Let me hasten to add, that MY comment was not in support of “Judicial Review.”
    I support the concept of a “plaintiff” bringing a law suit against ANY government body, seeking relief from some onerous statute or regulation; that the plaintiff believes oversteps the authority of that body to involve itself in. That legal process could lead to a decision in favor of the plaintiff, by the court (the Judicial branch), on the grounds that the law or regulation is Unconstitutional (either State or US). That is simply the judiciary doing what is their function to do; it isn’t judicial activism. The problem would arise much less often, if the Legislative (or Administrative) branch paid more attention to what they are constitutionally empowered to involve themsleves with; but they don’t and they thumb their noses at the people.

    No I don’t support; the courts, sans real plaintiffs simply taking it upon themsleves to rewrite laws. I’m against any non elected individual or entity or collectively the people, making up laws that they try to enforce. Beurocratic agencies may be required to administer duly passed laws; I get that; they should have NO abilty whatsoever to write or even advise on any such legislation; which should be the duty only of elected; (and unelectable) parties.
    And IANAL, so that is purely my personal opinion, and should be taken as such.

  38. phlogiston says:

    This article is indeed interesting but confusingly talks about microbes and phytoplankton interchangeably as if they were the same thing – they are not. Phytoplankton are a couple of orders of magnitude larger. (In between the phytoplankton and microbes / bacteria, there are the heterotrophic microflaggelates, which graze the bacteria.)

    I’ll have to check but t I think that marine prokaryotes are bacteria, not microbes (there is a big difference – microbes biochemically are more similar to us than they are to bacteria). Probably a mix of both. Concentrations of “marine prokaryotes” are about a million per cc in nutrient rich coastal waters, but a lot less in nutrient poor open ocean. Are these numbers sufficient to make an optical effect? The prokaryotes make up a small fraction of the single-celled planktonic biomass. (There are also viruses in there which attack the bacteria.)

  39. phlogiston says:

    Correction:

    “The prokaryotes make up a small fraction of the single-celled planktonic biomass. (There are also viruses in there which attack the bacteria.)”

    In the ocean as a whole prokaryotes contribute a large proportion of biomass. But in the upper sunlit layer – which affects albedo – I would guess phytoplankton biomass predominates.

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