Forecast: Thunderstorms with a chance of germstones

A large hailstone, approximately 5 1/4 inches ...

A large hailstone, approximately 133 mm (5 1/4 inches) in diameter, that fell in Harper, Kansas on May 14, 2004. Image via Wikipedia

American Society for Microbiology

The role of bacteria in weather events

NEW ORLEANS, LA – May 24, 2011 — Researchers have discovered a high concentration of bacteria in the center of hailstones, suggesting that airborne microorganisms may be responsible for that and other weather events. They report their findings today at the 111th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in New Orleans.

“Bacteria have been found within the embryo, the first part of a hailstone to develop. The embryo is a snapshot of what was involved with the event that initiated growth of the hailstone,” says Alexander Michaud of Montana State University in Bozeman, who presented the research.

Michaud and his colleagues analyzed hailstones over 5 centimeters in diameter that were collected on the University campus after a storm in June 2010. The large hailstones were seperated into 4 layers and the meltwater from each layer was analyzed. The number of culturable bacteria was found to be highest in the inner cores of the hailstone.

“In order for precipitation to occur, a nucleating particle must be present to allow for aggregation of water molecules,” says Michaud. “There is growing evidence that these nuclei can be bacteria or other biological particles.”

Michaud’s research is part of a growing field of study focusing on bioprecipitation, a concept where bacteria may initiate rainfall and other forms of precipitation including snow and hail. The formation of ice in clouds, which is necessary for snow and most rainfall events, requires ice nuclei (IN), particles that the ice crystals can grow around.

“Aerosols in clouds play key roles in the processes leading to precipitation due to their ability to serve as sites for ice nucleation. At temperatures warmer than -40 degrees Celsius ice formation is not spontaneous and requires an IN,” says Brent Christner of Louisiana State University, also presenting at the meeting.

A diverse range of particles are capable of serving as IN, but the most active naturally occurring IN are biological in origin, capable of catalyzing ice formations at temperatures near -2 degrees Celsius. The most well-studied biological IN is the plant pathogen Psuedomonas syringae.

“Ice nucleating strains of P. syringae possess a gene that encodes a protein in their outer membrane that binds water molecules in an ordered arrangement, providing a very efficient nucleating template that enhances ice crystal formation,” says Christner.

Aerosol-cloud simulation models imply that high concentrations of biological IN may influence the average concentration and size of ice crystals in clouds, horizontal cloud coverage in the free troposphere, precipitation levels at the ground and even insulation of the earth from solar radiation.

“Evidence for the distribution of biological IN in the atmosphere coupled with the warm temperatures at which they function as IN has implied that biological IN may play a role in the Earth’s hydrological cycle and radiative balance,” says Christner.

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57 Responses to Forecast: Thunderstorms with a chance of germstones

  1. Russ Hatch says:

    And not one mention of CO2,sheesh.

  2. reason says:

    Excuse me while I break proper WUWT decorum for a moment. Ladies, please avert your eyes.

    Holy shit!

    That is all.

  3. Repeat the CLOUD experiment with bacteria in the mix

  4. Laurie Bowen says:

    “suggesting that airborne microorganisms may be responsible for that and other weather events” . . . .

    This is a pretty big leap for one sample storm studied . . .

    Rain has to have something to form around also . . . . This is the basic 101 meteorology thirty + years ago.

  5. polistra says:

    This is part of the biggest and least reported story in science, with lots of branches popping up all over the place. (Another interesting branch is the role of bacteria in communication among plants; another is the role of our gut bacteria in controlling our emotions…..)

    If I had to give advice to a youngster considering a career in science, it would be
    “One word, young man: Bacteria.”

  6. Control The Language, Control the Thoughts says:

    Fascinating stuff.

  7. bikermailman says:

    May be a dumb question, but is it possible the bacteria come from land based dust that is pulled upward from the thunderstorm formation?

  8. David, UK says:

    Control The Language, Control the Thoughts says:
    May 24, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    Fascinating stuff.

    That was me – I forgot to change my name back since my last post. I do find this stuff fascinating!

  9. Richard says:

    You should contact Gavin Pretor-Pinney, who wrote the Cloud Spotter’s Guide and started the Cloud Appreciation Society.

    He did an experiment for a BBC TV programme about clouds, flying into a cloud and collecting samples of the air outside in Petri dishes. He had been told by a scientist that it was possible bacteria seeded clouds, and wanted to test what was there.

    I have not seen the programme unfortunately, so I don’t know the result., but I was the pilot who flew him up into the cloud, in a little Piper Seneca over Cambridgeshire.

  10. Ric Werme says:

    Shub Niggurath says:
    May 24, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    > Repeat the CLOUD experiment with bacteria in the mix

    Svensmark’s hypothesis applies to clean maritime air and offers a path for condensation nuclei to form in clean air. My guess is that P. syringae would dominate the DMS/SO2/suphate nuclei CLOUD is studying.

  11. Laurie Bowen says:

    Or older . . . The role of molds and bacteria in the formation of cheese . . . .
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_cheese

    I know some hate Wikipedia . . . . but . . .

    Oh wait, the role of yeast in wine formation . . .

    I hope this is not example of trolling . . . if it is, I do not know what the point of this story is . . .

  12. Mike Bromley says:

    “Evidence for the distribution of biological IN in the atmosphere coupled with the warm temperatures at which they function as IN has implied that biological IN may play a role in the Earth’s hydrological cycle and radiative balance”

    For just a second I was wincing and bracing myself for some remark that increased bacteria may be caused by climate change….but it never came. I’m still smarting from a recent flurry of “caused by CC” assertions, I think.

  13. Laurie Bowen says:

    Richard says:
    May 24, 2011 at 1:52 pm “flying into a cloud and collecting samples of the air outside in Petri dishes. ”

    Be much cheaper to test rain samples . . . . or haven’t you heard . . . that there has been a governmental Debt Crisis worldwide

  14. John from CA says:

    bikermailman says:
    May 24, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    May be a dumb question, but is it possible the bacteria come from land based dust that is pulled upward from the thunderstorm formation?

    ======
    I was wondering where “high concentration of bacteria” was coming from as well. Although, I wonder what they mean by high — makes it sound like a remake of the Andromeda Strain.

    Apparently, large hail is primarily created in the strongest updraft regions of the severest convective storms. The moisture is drawn up from the base of the storm and comes in contact with ice crystals from the top of the storm.

    I guess it seems logical that the ice from higher altitudes would contain less bacteria than the seed moisture (sleet) from the updraft that’s necessary to form the core for hail.

    Apparently, the longer the hail remains aloft, the larger the hail stone. The largest found in the US was 7″ in diameter.

  15. DirkH says:

    The GCM modelers now face a choice:
    a) rework their models and include a bacterial cloud seeding component
    b) use it as a fudge factor to have better hindcasting and more catastrophic future projections.

    If i were them i would argue: Increased CO2 promotes (by some hypothesized but highly likely mechanism) cloud seeding by bacteria, reducing cloud cover rapidly once a critical concentration of CO2 is reached, say in 2050; and from there temperatures will go up up up…

  16. DirkH says:

    Thinking about it, i could write a book about it and be the next Neil Postman / Jared Diamond / Al Gore…

  17. Nonegatives says:

    Finally! A new standard for measuring hail stones has been set. Forget quarters, golf balls, grapefruit – “as big as a $20 bill” will be the phrase to use. Be sure to wear a hardhat!

  18. wsbriggs says:

    As a kid we were taught in Kansas, that nitrogen fixing bacteria were one of the wonderful things to fall in rain, I would expect, that some of them are IN as well, maybe just not as good for hail formation. I could imagine that scanning a cloud for bacterial types might let you predict the probability of having hail fall from the system.

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

    Seems unlikely to me, I think it more probable that the nuclei are formed from soil and disintegrated vegetation particles, carried aloft in the wind. The bacteria are along for the ride.

    Perhaps the extracellular polymeric substances of the bacteria help the process along, but I can’t think it would be very significant considering the miniscule amounts, compared to the mass of dust plus liquid water & forming ice crystals.

    See Figure 5 (no paywall): http://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/pdf/10.1175/1520-0469(1971)028%3C0391%3ANIFNIS%3E2.0.CO%3B2

  20. bikermailman says:

    Laurie Bowen says:
    May 24, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    According to Steny Hoyer, there’s not a problem at all!
    http://www.newsbusters.org/blogs/edwin-mora/2011/05/24/steny-hoyer-america-not-broke

  21. D. J. Hawkins says:

    Nonegatives says:
    May 24, 2011 at 2:30 pm
    Finally! A new standard for measuring hail stones has been set. Forget quarters, golf balls, grapefruit – “as big as a $20 bill” will be the phrase to use. Be sure to wear a hardhat!

    At that size, forget the hard hat. Make sure you have your organ donor card!

  22. Ray says:

    I wonder if they corrected for the dilution factor or did they just use a statistical population count in absolute value? The greater the diameter, the more diluted the count is.

  23. icebear says:

    so, it’s not MAN-made ‘climate change’, after all!

  24. vigilantfish says:

    Stupid question time. How long would it take for one of those monster hailstones to form? I find it amazing that an object could stay aloft long enough, even with strong updrafts, to reach that size. Whew!

  25. NCRich says:

    I think that this essay is just a little off track. While his description of “ice nuclei” (IN) is basically correct, it goes beyond what actually happens. In sub-freezing condition the presence of an IN may lead to the formation of a particle of snow, or snowflake. The exception to that rule is condensation that occurs at very high altitudes and which forms the thin Cirrus clouds that we often see on otherwise sunny days.

    But condensation around an IN cannot lead directly to the formation of a hailstone. Hailstones are generally formed after a water droplet has been formed by the attachment of water molecules in supersaturated air around what I have learned was called “condensation nuclei”. Without condensation nuclei, visible moisture IE: clouds cannot form. I will not attempt to discuss the sources of condensation nuclei, because they can be as varied as the number of different particles that can be carried aloft by the wind.

    But back to hail. When enough water droplets collide they will gain enough mass to start to fall and they will become rain. However, in a thunderstorm, the vertical currents can easily catch the raindrops and throw then back up, and when they pass the altitude of the freezing level they will freeze and start back down again. Below the freezing level they will gather more raindrops and get another ride back up so that that new layer freezes. This process can repeat itself several times and the more times this little hailstone gets a ride on the up-elevator the larger it becomes. Eventually they become too heavy and fall to earth. That is why the hailstones that are described in the essay have many types of bacteria and, I’m sure, particles of other origins.

  26. John from CA says:

    CRS, Dr.P.H. says:
    May 24, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    Seems unlikely to me, I think it more probable that the nuclei are formed from soil and disintegrated vegetation particles, carried aloft in the wind. The bacteria are along for the ride.

    ======
    That makes sense.

    Montana State University in Bozeman and Bozeman itself is largely surrounded by farms and ranches. Winter wheat was damaged by the winds and hail at the University so its reasonable to assume tilled ground in the surrounding area.

    KBZK and the local paper recorded reported golfball and baseball sized hail from the second storm that hit the University. The image above looks more like softball size but its in the ballpark. source: http://www.kbzk.com/news/hail-storm-pummels-bozeman-area/

    The storm struck on June 30, 2010

    Note: “Ildi Francke collected hail from her yard to use in cocktails after Wednesday afternoon’s hail storm.” The University should probably discourage this in light of the recent germstone findings : )

    source: see 3rd from the left image bottom row:
    http://www.bozemandailychronicle.com/news/collection_a797d6d4-8563-11df-89e8-001cc4c03286.html

  27. Murray says:

    AGW warming, more bacteria, more hail, more top of troposphere heat loss, negative feedback. Holy crap! that can’t be right.

  28. Geoff Sherrington says:

    Any bacteria on other planets that have been used for comparisons in greenhouse theories?

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

    Murray says:
    May 24, 2011 at 4:21 pm
    AGW warming, more bacteria, more hail, more top of troposphere heat loss, negative feedback. Holy crap! that can’t be right.
    —–
    REPLY End-times….Rev. Camping was right after all!

  30. Dave Wendt says:

    Are there any studies out there suggesting viruses as an influence on the climate. If we can get one of those we’ll have virtually the whole spectrum of life covered as potential climate changers. In the last couple years we’ve had works suggesting weather or climate influence for everything from the excrement of blue whales, the largest species on the planet, down through cows , sheep and various ungulates, to termites, ants and other insects, krill and various planktons and now bacteria. Humanity may be affecting the climate, but it would appear at least arguable that every other living thing is as well. I’m beginning to feel I owe old Lovelock a small apology.
    I don’t know that these suggestions will stand up to scrutiny in the long run, but this work is another in growing line that illustrates just how massive the problem of “unknown unknowns” is for the “settled science” and its talismanic GCMs.

  31. Bob in Castlemaine says:

    Don’t anyone tell Bill Gates or we could see him recommission the “bone yard” to become his own saving the planet biological bombers.
    Seriously though, maybe this is a line of research CLOUD should investigate, if they aren’t already doing so.

  32. Tim Clark says:

    I work in Anthony, KS. 10 miles south of Harper. We get these big suckers all the time. Last year the State record (pending) hailstone, 7 5/8 ” fell 1.5 miles SE of my house. I got a new paintjob, windshield, roof , skylights and siding. It’s amazing how beautiful the clouds are just before they hammer you.

  33. Tim Clark says:

    Unfortunately, it looks like I’m about to get splattered again. No hook echo, though. Think I’ll open a beer and watch the fireworks on the back deck. Until the stones start dropping.

  34. Tim Clark says:

    Impressive light show. Little rain. Damn La Nina. I’ve had an inch since October. Let’er rain.

  35. rbateman says:

    Winter will not leave N. Calif. alone. We have another Winter Storm Watch for the Sierra tomorrow. Local meteorologist pretty well laid it out tonight: Showers for the next 2 weeks off an on, and no signs of any changes coming.
    Geese were seen flying north in a Vee formation in Sacramento last Friday (May 20).

  36. John_in_Oz says:

    Wow, look at the size of that thing!
    But otherwise, as Laurie Bowen says: Rain has to have something to form around also . . . . This is the basic 101 meteorology thirty + years ago.

    It’s also one of the reasons the warmists have yet to make a case that persuades me.
    I haven’t seen any arguments from them that address the issue of the biological ecosystem of clouds. Surely warmer temperatures, moisture and increased CO2 measns increased bacteria in clouds and therefore a negative feedback effect on temperature? More clouds reflecting sunlight away, and more precipitation, reducing the water vapour forcing?

  37. Steve C says:

    Well, no-one else has said it so …

    So, what Michaud and his colleagues are saying is that Mother Gaia is so desperate to get rid of the evil, polluting humans that she has resorted to bombarding them with biologically weaponised hail.

    It’s worse than we thought. :-)

  38. That is one hell of a hailstone!

    Imagine Al Gore trying to get from his convenient jet to his convenient limo, and…
    BOOM!!!
    Inconvenient oops.

  39. John Marshall says:

    Considering the high number of particles, bacteria, fungal spores, dust etc. floating about in the atmosphere why does this not surprise me.

    Yes, include these particles into the CLOUD mix for comparison purposes as an important part of that experiment.

  40. Ric Werme says:

    Science News has an article with more content. It may be subscriber-only, but try http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/74739/title/Germy_with_a_chance_of_hail

    Since at least the 1980s, scientists have argued that some share of clouds, and their precipitation, likely traces to microbes. Their reasoning: Strong winds can loft germs many kilometers into the sky. And since the 1970s, agricultural scientists have recognized that certain compounds made by microbes serve as efficient water magnets around which ice crystals can form at relatively high temperatures (occasionally leading to frost devastation of crops).

    In 2008, Brent Christner of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and his colleagues reported isolating ice-nucleating bacteria from rain and snow. A year later, Prenni’s group found microbes associated with at least a third of the cloud ice crystals they sampled at an altitude of 8 kilometers.

    Pure water molecules won’t freeze in air at temperatures above about –40° Celsius, Christner notes. Add tiny motes of mineral dust or clay, and water droplets may coalesce around them — or nucleate — at perhaps –15°. But certain bacteria can catalyze ice nucleation at even –2°, he reported at the meeting in New Orleans.

    Through chemical techniques, Michaud’s group determined that the ice nucleation in their hail occurred around –11.5° for the June hailstones and at roughly –8.5° for the July stones.

  41. Ian W says:

    There are grains of dust, pollen, spores and bacteria all the way up into the stratosphere. The fact that these may become condensation nuclei for rain drops and subsequently hail is hardly surprising. Indeed the thunderstorms themselves could easily be ‘hoovering up’ large quantities of dust from the surface much of which will be organic particles. The stronger the storm the larger the amount of dust it would pick up and the greater chance of hail forming around that dust. Hail does not form in gentle wafting air currents ;-) Some of the updrafts in large storms can reach over 100kts. Aircraft are advised to stay more than 20 miles from such storms as hail can be thrown that far from them.

    The storms top out at the tropopause – or more correctly where the storms stop is called the tropopause. Even above that there are bacteria and pollen and dust…

    The most recent story in the history of pollen is recorded not by the successes but by the failures. The air, however clear, is full of unsuccessful pollen, drifting in eddies of wind. Billions of grains reach the stratosphere. Even now, as you read, a few grains may rest on your hands or face, or on your cat. Pollen settles and accumulates in sediment, layer after layer, particularly at the bottoms of lakes and ponds.
    http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/print/2009/12/pollen/dunn-text
    Three new species of bacteria, which are not found on earth and highly resistant to ultraviolet radiation, have been discovered in the upper stratosphere by some Indian scientists.
    These bacteria, which do not match any species on earth, were found in samples collectedthrough a balloon sent up to the stratosphere in April 2005.

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2009/03/25/uv-resistant-bacteria-discovered-in-the-stratosphere/

    People tend to think of bacteria as somehow only growing on dirty places…. they are completely ubiquitous – it is impossible to find a bacteria free place anywhere. Our bodies are 90% bacterial cells
    (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Composition_of_the_human_body#Symbionts)

    I cannot understand why anyone would be surprised to find them in rain and hailstones from thunderstorms.

  42. Laurie Bowen says:

    @ bikermailman who says: May 24, 2011 at 2:46 pm “According to Steny Hoyer, there’s not a problem at all!”
    http://www.newsbusters.org/blogs/edwin-mora/2011/05/24/steny-hoyer-america-not-broke#ixzz1NNGwZyOw

    but . . . . he also says . . . “and we can use those resources, both intellectual and financial, to get us to a place where we are again a fiscally sound nation, a fiscally balanced nation, . . . . “

  43. David Falkner says:

    Makes me wonder about something. Pollen, dust, and the other particle matter in the atmosphere. Why wouldn’t these things absorb or reflect energy from the sun?

    I also could not help but think of a guy hidden in the clouds, throwing down things shaped like that hailstone. That’s right, I mean:

    http://images3.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20080307195450/ssb/images/4/43/LakituAssist.jpg

  44. Theo Goodwin says:

    Control The Language, Control the Thoughts says:
    May 24, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    I want to compliment you on your choice of moniker. Orwell would salute the idea that it embodies. I hope you become a prodigy at nailing the communists and fellow travellers everytime they toss another bomb in their semantic war against Western civilization.

  45. Richard says:

    Laurie Bowen says:
    May 24, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    Richard says:
    May 24, 2011 at 1:52 pm “flying into a cloud and collecting samples of the air
    outside in Petri dishes. ”

    Be much cheaper to test rain samples . . . . or haven’t you heard . . . that there
    has been a governmental Debt Crisis worldwide

    The BBC has never been known to recognise the cheaper way of doing it. However it was just about the cheapest aircraft to hire that can fly into a cloud.

  46. Gary Swift says:

    From the article:

    “P. syringae possess a gene that encodes a protein in their outer membrane that binds water molecules in an ordered arrangement, providing a very efficient nucleating template that enhances ice crystal formation”

    That’s kinda cool. This little critter evolved a mechanism to get itself back down to the ground in a timely manner after being blown up into the atmosphere by the wind? That’s a really wild survival mechanism. Nature never ceases to amaze.

  47. Gary Pearse says:

    Apparently (no link) frozen eider ducks rained down on St John’s Newfoundland many years ago. I guess they got swept upwards, frozen and coated with layers of ice much like hailstones. Ouch that would hurt.

  48. Dr. Dave says:

    This is truly fascinating stuff. I had never heard of that species of Pseudomonas and had to Google it. P. syringae is a plant pathogen. Several species of Pseudomonas are very nasty human pathogens (commonly found in soil). They have found viable Pseudomonas aeruginosa growing in bottles of povidone-iodine (a topical antiseptic) and they even discovered a species of Pseudomonas was responsible for the deterioration of an asphalt runway in California. The pathogenicity of P. syringae is directly associated with its ability to cause freeze damage to host plants thereby making the nutrients available for the bacteria. It seems entirely plausible that this bacterium could play a role in the formation of hail.

    Golly! I love this site! I learn something new every day.

  49. Richard says:

    Garry

    It happened a few years back to a British hang-glider pilot over in Spain somewhere, came up in some flight-safety article. He was spat out at top – fortunately he was in a warm, sleeping-bag-like sling (which formed an ice layer) and had a parachute, as he was spat out unconscious from near the top of the storm, and woke up just in time to open his ‘chute.

  50. Cynical Bastard says:

    Laurie Bowen is clearly unaware of the rain scrubbing problem.

    Disclaimer: I am one of THOSE people. I was there. I’ve heard the talk.

  51. Brian H says:

    Of course bacteria cause nucleation and rain and hail and modulate albedo and hitch rides in the stratosphere ’round and ’round the planet. And eat people and asphalt.

    Bacteria Rule! FILO = First In, Last Out.

  52. John_in_Oz says:

    I am grateful to Jimbo for his links.
    The second one, http://www.oewf.org/tripolar/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/19_Sattler_et_al_2001.pdf shows that I was wrong.
    “… the number of bacteria in cloud water approx 1500 per ml is far lower than the number of cloud droplets forming one ml approx 200,000,000 it appears that bacteria, – although growing in cloud droplets, – are not an important source of cloud condensation nuclei”

    I’ve amended some symbols etc. for ease of typing, but I believe I quote it fairly.

  53. Laurie Bowen says:

    Cynical Bastard who says: May 25, 2011 at 2:44 pm “Laurie Bowen is clearly unaware of the rain scrubbing problem.”

    You are absolutely correct . . . I haven’t a clue what this means . . . . If you are talking about the acid rains that results from volcanoes and the like . . . or the scrubbers that have been mandated for power plants. . . .

    Please, enlighten me on the importance (who, when, where, what, how, and why’s) of your statement . .

    “scrubbers to remove sulfur compounds from their flue gases”
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/10/101021104735.htm

  54. Cynical Bastard says:

    Laura Bowen – with pleasure.

    Imagine you have a GI tract problem. Imagine your doctor orders a stool sample for microbiological analysis. Would you collect that sample, ahem, at the source, or from the sewer 5 miles downstream?

    …same general idea. By the time rain hits the ground, it has fallen through whatever thickness of the atmosphere, harvesting all sorts of particles. Can you tell which are which? I can’t, and neither is anybody else (so I am exaggerating for the sake of illustration, but that’s the idea). And if the rain doesn’t fall, the only way to find out what’s up there, is to GO up there.

    Incidentally, the guy’s planes are nothing more than large models, with samplers and guidance systems. A lot cheaper than sending a whole bloody C-130 up.

  55. Laurie Bowen says:

    @Cynical Bastard Thank-you I did not understand the terminology you were using or what you were even referring to . . . and I was not aware that they were already using “models, with samplers and guidance systems” . . . . glad to hear it . . . it is a whole lot cheaper . . . and safer.

    Finally, as for your analogy . . .

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