Another cloudy-maybe geoengineering scheme

UGA scientists find missing links in biology of cloud formation over oceans

UGA News Service

A simplified graphic shows the process by which bacterioplankton send sulfur found in decaying algae into the food web or into the atmosphere, where it leads to water droplet formation—the basis of clouds that cool the Earth. Graphic by Chris Reisch, University of Georgia

Scientists have known for two decades that sulfur compounds that are produced by bacterioplankton as they consume decaying algae in the ocean cycle through two paths. In one, a sulfur compound dimethylsulfide, or DMS, goes into the atmosphere, where it leads to water droplet formation – the basis of clouds that cool the Earth. In the other, a sulfur compound goes into the ocean’s food web, where it is eaten and returned to seawater.

What they haven’t known is how sulfur is routed one way or the other or why.

They also have wondered what if – in a time of growing concern about global warming – it was possible to divert the sulfur compound that goes into the oceans into the atmosphere, helping to mitigate global warming?

A study by researchers at the University of Georgia just published in Nature brings the possibility of using the sulfur cycle to mitigate global warming closer with the identification of the steps in the biochemical pathway that controls how bacteria release the sulfur compound methanethiol, or MeSH, into the microbial food web in the oceans and the genes responsible for that process.

“With our increased understanding of the sulfur cycle in the ocean,” said study co-author William (Barny) Whitman, “we are now better able to evaluate the impacts of climate change on the process and the potential for its manipulation, which has been proposed as a way to mitigate global warming.

“It’s wonderful to have this much understanding of a major biogeochemical process,” noted Whitman, distinguished research professor and head of the department of microbiology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

In addition to elucidating the steps in the pathway and identifying the responsible genes, the team of UGA microbiologists, marine scientists and chemists discovered that the pathway is found widely, not only among bacterioplankton in the ocean but also in non-marine environments.

“The big mystery about bacteria is what they are doing in nature,” Whitman said. “The organisms metabolize compounds for their own needs. We need to understand what they are getting out of it to understand what it means for the ocean, and now it will be possible to look at the environmental importance of this process and how it’s regulated.” That will help to answer the “why” of the two sulfur fates.

Co-authors of the Nature paper were UGA graduate students Chris Reisch and Vanessa Varaljay, department of microbiology; graduate student Melissa Stoudemayer and Jon Amster, professor and head, department of chemistry; and distinguished research professor Mary Ann Moran, department of marine sciences—all in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

The collaborators in this study built on a line of research begun at UGA over a decade ago. Moran’s early research showed that an abundant group of bacteria known as marine roseobacters play a role in moving dimethylsulfonioproprionate (DMSP), the chemical made by marine algae and released into the water upon their death, into the atmosphere as the compound dimethylsulfide (DMS).

In 2006, Moran’s research group discovered in marine bacteria the first step in the process of turning DMSP into MeSH, instead of sending sulfur into the atmosphere. And in 2008, Moran’s doctoral student Erinn Howard, in collaboration with Whitman’s lab, discovered the gene that allows marine roseobacters to keep sulfur in the ocean.

With funding from the National Science Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the UGA researchers have now identified the rest of the pathway, including identifying two previously unknown but related chemical compounds that serve as intermediates between MMPA, the first product of degraded DMSP, and MeSH, the final product.

The collaboration with UGA chemists using high-resolution mass spectrometry made it possible for the researchers to identify the compounds. A major surprise was the presence of Coenzyme A (CoA), a large molecule important in metabolism, in the intermediate compounds.

“We weren’t really expecting CoA to be involved,” said Reisch, who was part of the UGA group that five years ago identified the first step in the pathway that produces MeSH. “We thought they would be smaller fatty acids.”

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38 thoughts on “Another cloudy-maybe geoengineering scheme

  1. Although I have made no specific experimental studies in recent times, it would not surprise me to find that sulphur in biological cycles was a contributor to the hidden decline in the quasi-operatic ring cycle for trees. The global number of ore smelters emitting SO2 increased rapidly from about 1940 and some major plumes (such as Mt Isa, Queensland) were studied in reasonable detail for several hundred km downwind. Then scrubbing became more common. I see far less about sulphur in the literature than I think its importance deserves. It forms a multitude of bioactive compounds as the above article illustrates. (Just as it illustrates how ‘the science is settled’).

  2. Good News: In tenuous web of proto-logic & modern day forward modeling, UGA demonstrates how to continue to receive grant funding by connecting just about any alphabet soup to Climate Change, in the ocean, no less. Rotten egg smells in the ocean, hmmmmmmm!?

    And, they make it look easy: Wipe, wipe, rinse, rinse… “That parts done! More money please.”

    Hey, they could be right. Just sayin’ ! This demonstrates the leveraging of research dollars to the cause of the decade, Climate Change.

  3. dp says:
    May 12, 2011 at 12:34 am
    I’m picturing a classic “Hold m’beer and watch this” moment evolve before my eyes.

    Pass the guacamole. That sulfur has played a world role forever is obvious to me, working in northern Kurdish Iraq as a wellsite geologist (OK, I admit it, I’m feeding at the Oil Trough, so my opinions are tainted, biased, jaded, etc, etc…/sarc)
    Iraqi Zagros oil is sour-sour-sour….at times exceeding 40% H2S (the rotten egg smell) whose origins are the immensely prolific seawater (and plankton) of the Mesozoic Tethys Seaway, source of most of the oil from Morocco to Kazakhstan and beyond. I dare say the tepid and restricted Tethys was a putrid place….and the climate was largely without Ice at the time as well. Whoops! Where are all those dang clouds?

    The thought of some enterprising gut-bucket grant-garnering Geoengineering-load of whoop-ass diddling the Pacific ocean in hopes of creating a fogbank or two is just, again, typical of the heights of foolish being put forward to distract us from Jim Hansen’s load of stink damp before the courts. Long sentence, I know.
    Pretzels!

  4. Hey Ferdinand Englebeen, does this mean our low sulfur fuels, especially diesel, are causing less clouds and more warming? What sulfur compounds fail to seed clouds? This all seems silly, what I observe is that when the volcanic activity is low, clouds are few and far between. When I hear about a good size eruption, depending on erupt location, I can count on finding some ash on the hood of my white truck in the near future… Poof, clouds everywhere.

  5. Warmer oceans: more algea and plankton growth: more atmospheric dimethylsulfide: more cloud formation: climate cooling.

    Sounds like a negative feedback on the face of it.

  6. Another goofy geoengineering plan by a scientist craving recognition.

    Please LEAVE WELL ALONE.

    Every well meaning environmental plan has turned to worms and had serious unintended consequences. Need I say more.

  7. Is it understood whether there are natural, periodic and geographically varying cycles of DMS production by bacterioplankton in the oceans that could by themselves be naturally modulating a significant amount of cloud variation? Is it in the models? How would it interact with possible cosmic ray modulation of cloud as I’m sure both would be affected by solar cycles.

  8. Hmmmm!
    Let’s take something used as food for some species or other, and divert it somewhere else to save the world.

    NOW WHERE HAVE I HEARD THAT BEFORE?

  9. The main article states:

    “It’s wonderful to have this much understanding of a major biogeochemical process,” noted Whitman, distinguished research professor and head of the department of microbiology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

    However, it is very scary how much of the required understanding is unknown and that in the face of that a little assertion claimed to be the know-all of required knowledge is presented as everything required to be known. That brings to mind the following.

    Slate has compiled a collection of Rumsfeld’s poems, bringing them to a wider public for the first time. The poems that follow are the exact words of the defense secretary, as taken from the official transcripts on the Defense Department Web site.

    The Unknown

    As we know,
    There are known knowns.
    There are things we know we know.
    We also know
    There are known unknowns.
    That is to say
    We know there are some things
    We do not know.
    But there are also unknown unknowns,
    The ones we don’t know
    We don’t know.

    —Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

    More at http://www.slate.com/id/2081042/

  10. This genuinely does indicate a manmade impact on the climate.

    The use of fertilisers has affected algal blooms. It must have perturbed the sulphur cycle and so probably cloud formation.

    Clouds affect the temperature, the precipitation… the climate.

    So if we just take away the costly desulphurisation kit from coal fired power station flues we can self-regulate the terrible CO2 warming and have cheaper energy. If we can quantify both effects that is.

  11. Another question. Does bacterioplankton grow more quickly if there is increased CO2 in the ocean? Does that affect the amount of DMS produced and so increase cloud cover? What an interesting finding that would be.

  12. Hmm, the Greenies are against Frankenfoods. Don’t they see that by endorsing Frankenbacteria, they’re kind of doing on a monstrous scale (OK, I couldn’t help it) the same thing. In this case, the results will be far worse!

    I think it’s getting nearly time for pitchforks and torches, guys.

  13. …into the atmosphere, where it leads to water droplet formation—the basis of clouds that cool the Earth.

    I thought the great beast CAGW was going to increase the amount of moisture in the air through increased temperatures and create a massive positive feedback by making it warmer! Now they make it cooler.

    I’m so confused!

    /sarc

  14. “They also have wondered what if – in a time of growing concern about global warming – it was possible to divert the sulfur compound that goes into the oceans into the atmosphere, helping to mitigate global warming?”
    “Growing concern”? They wish.
    Anything is possible. The real questions are, is it wise, at what cost, and what, if any benefit would there be? Is cooling itself a benefit or a liability? History shows it to be the latter.
    Surely, they must see the window of opportunity for getting in on the MMGW gravy train closing. These “studies” are just more bilge from a dying (thankfully) ideology.

  15. Being fair to them (from my reading of it), they were/are only ‘wondering’ and not suggesting that so-and-so is actually done. Having said that it, of course, gives the nod for someone else to go there/do that.
    Surely not a wise move. We’re messing with bacteria here. History says that that is not a good idea – see how antibiotics turned bacteria that were previously just nuisances into virtually indestructible and ruthless killers.

    It also resonates with the Acid Rain fiasco here in the UK. Look how measures to stop Acid Rain raised energy prices, crippled the efficiency of (coal fired) power plants and dug huge craters (by extracting limestone) in some of England’s National Parks.
    Yet it still carries on when we need all the energy we can get and farmers (I know coz I am one) have to now buy fertilizer containing added sulphur. Even better is that one of the most sulphur hungry crops (in the UK at least) is that darling of the ecogreen sustainability nuts = rapeseed oil (Canola) = the source of bio-diesel
    Read the story here…

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/sweden/1403483/British-acid-rain-helps-our-trees-says-Norway.html

    ….. and laugh or cry (or both) as you feel appropriate.

  16. Sulphur has had a bad rap over the past 50 yrs or so under the ignorant zeal of the same kind of environmemtal shock troops we are dealing with today. High sulphur coals are accummulated vegetation and over many decades,S has also been recognized as a fertilizer – deficiency hampers a plant’s ability to utilize nitrogen.(C,N,O,P,S are all grouped together in the Periodic Table – a pretty NB bunch of life elements).

  17. It seems that bacteria have already taken care of the “problem” by regulating the temperature of the earth through cloud formation.

    This didn’t take an “intelligence” on the part of the bacteria. This bacteria that changed the climate of earth billons of years ago to make the earth more habitable to themselves survived and those that didn’t, didn’t.

    It would appear that by (possibly) raising the temperature of the polar regions of the earth, humans are making the planet more habitable to themselves by reducing the odds of the next ice age.

    While it is somehow OK for bacteria to make the world a more comfortable place for themselves, it is definitely not OK for people to do this. At least according to mainstream.

  18. ““We weren’t really expecting CoA to be involved,” said Reisch, […] “We thought they would be smaller fatty acids.””

    Emphasizing professional ignorance & lack of imagination might not be the best press release strategy.

    Why does the public never see something more reassuring? For example:

    “We’ve had an open mind all along and were neither startled nor alarmed by our latest findings.”

  19. wsbriggs says
    May 12, 2011 at 4:31 am
    “I think it’s getting nearly time for pitchforks and torches, guys.”

    Yes! And pikes for their heads!

    (Hey guys, it’s a JOKE for all the would-be Jacobins out there! Honest.)

    Regards,

    Steamboat Jack (Jon Jewett’s evil twin)

  20. The worst part of geo-engineering is that unintended consequences are never a forethought. The reason why is that “Saving Anything” gets you a rubber-stamped Record of Decision, ergo your EIR is not required.

  21. Jsut suppose that this finding is correct.
    Then I can see a real man made disaster coming up.
    Great scientists get busy and use this knowledge to turn the global temperature down.
    And suppose that this coincides with a natural down cycle.
    Suddenly, it gets very cold.
    Scientists respond by reversing the process.
    In doing so, they overshoot and it gets really hot.
    And so forth and so on, until the whole climate yo-yos out of control.

    Bu it’s nearly midnight, Sydney time, so I hope all this is just a bad dream.
    Otherwise it may prove that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

  22. John Marshall says: “LEAVE WELL ALONE.”
    at 2:05 am

    To which I’ll add: YOU CAN’T DO JUST ONE THING.

  23. Dimethyl sulfide is one of the primary odorants in flatulence. So now belching cows are bad for the environment, but farting fish are good .


  24. “…where it leads to water droplet formation – the basis of clouds that cool the Earth. …”

    Wait a minute – clouds cool the earth? I thought it had been decided
    by consensus that clouds cause warming.

    One is confused.

  25. Oh pu-leeease! No matter how far our understanding of various contributors to climate change may be, I cannot see any credibility in any suggestion that this understanding will give us – mere humans – the knowledge to actually halt or slow, or “mitigate” climate change. The oceans are VAST. The number of processes and influences and forcings and feedbacks are VAST, and infinitely complex. There is nothing anyone can do to change the climate in any pre-calculated way. Nature is bigger than Man, and any suggestion to the contrary is pure God-complex arrogance. Still, that sums up the whole CAGW movement.

  26. The formation of MeSH from DMSP has been known since the early 1990’s.

    Ronald Kiene has studied this reaction in ocean waters in detail.

  27. Is it possible that our Ultra Low Sulfur diesel is inadvertently leading to less cloud formation, less rainfall and increasing global surface temps?

    Maybe we need to rethink ULS diesel. Additionally, we now inject urea into our diesel exhaust systems to decrease particulates even further. However; the process increases CO2 concentration above the normal diesel exhaust levels. Not sure what other effects there might be, but putting Urea into the exhaust stream to reduce pollution has always seemed like a bit of a boondoggle to me. It costs about $5000 per truck to do.

    Seems like every time we try to accomplish some ephemeral ‘save the planet’ type goal, we end up going backwards or creating problems we hadn’t thought of.

    Sisyphus lives!

  28. Is this the same UofGa marine lab that discovered a new coral disease….
    …only for us to tell them that fire worms eat the tips off of acropora every fall

    or the same UofGa marine lab that was caught illegally harvesting corals and lost their permits to collect

    nahhhhh, can’t be

  29. The British chemist Lovelock was the first to discover DMSO in the open oceans in the early 1970s and suggested a connection to algae.

    DMSO is how the open ocean birds know it’s time for breakfast. During the day, it interacts with water and sunlight to become sulfuric acid.

    In addition , you can’t ignore the salt. Between sulfuric acid and salt, the oceans are one huge continuous erupting water volcano.

    Essentially this is the basis of work by Svensmark and Calder – the interactions of medium energy muons with sulfuric acid to produce low level clouds over the open oceans.

    Incidentally, how did the seeding of plankton with iron work out?

  30. What irritates/scares me is that they identify a natural system that automatically, without human interaction or taxpayer cost provides a natural negative feedback to increased temperatures and the first thing they want to do is to FIDDLE with it. D**n it all, the natural systems work — leave them alone!

  31. Agile Aspect says:
    May 12, 2011 at 10:08 am
    “The British chemist Lovelock was the first to discover DMSO in the open oceans in the early 1970s and suggested a connection to algae. ”

    It’s a pity that he’s crazy.

  32. “They also should have wondered what if – in a time of growing falling concern about global warming – it was possible to divert the sulfur compound that goes into the oceans into the atmosphere, helping to mitigate exacerbate global warming cooling.”
    Thar, aallll figsd.

  33. DirkH says:
    May 12, 2011 at 12:30
    It’s a pity that he’s crazy.
    ;————————————

    Yes it is. But he did make an important discovery by thinking outside the box.

  34. F. Ross says:
    May 12, 2011 at 9:45 am

    Wait a minute – clouds cool the earth? I thought it had been decided
    by consensus that clouds cause warming.

    ;————————————————-

    I thought it was warming causes clouds.

  35. I’m really pleased I’m a farmer not a scientist. I just think nature is marvellous and it works fine. Sometimes in my favour sometimes not and I really can’t do anything either way except work with it. I only have to know that some things work not how they work. The best thing that has come out of the AGW scam is that far from being settled the science is showing just how little we know and knowing so little how foolish we would be to make great decisions based on partial knowledge.

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