Salty sea spray affects the lifetimes of clouds, researchers find

From COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY and the “climate models still can’t get clouds right” department comes this interesting new study.

All over the planet, every day, oceans send plumes of sea spray into the atmosphere. Beyond the poetry of crashing ocean waves, this salt- and carbon-rich spray has a dramatic effect on the formation and duration of clouds.


Sea spray refers to aerosol particles that are formed directly from the ocean, mostly by ejection into the atmosphere by bursting bubbles at the air-sea interface. Image: Wikimedia

Yes, clouds, which cover 60 percent of the Earth’s surface at any given time. In a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, online Dec. 21, Colorado State University’s Paul DeMott, a senior research scientist in the Department of Atmospheric Science, says sea spray is a unique, underappreciated source of what are called ice nucleating particles – microscopic bits that make their way into clouds and initiate the formation of ice, and in turn affect the composition and duration of clouds.

“The presence of these particles is critically important for precipitation and the lifetime of clouds, and consequently, for their radiative properties,” said DeMott, who works in the lab of Sonia Kreidenweis, professor of atmospheric science, associate dean for research in the College of Engineering and a University Distinguished Professor.

Clouds’ effect on climate

Clouds, with their ability to reflect solar energy and absorb terrestrial radiation, have dramatic effects on climate. Their radiative properties are greatly influenced by the number, size and type of droplets and ice particles inside the cloud. These cloud particles can initiate from any number of sources of aerosols – particles suspended in air – from land and ocean surfaces. From desert dust to burning fossil fuels, aerosols that affect clouds are everywhere.

DeMott’s study has confirmed that ice nucleating particles from oceans are distinct, both in their abundance as well as their ice-making properties, from land-sourced particles. Hence, their influence on the liquid/ice phase structure of clouds, and their subsequent radiative impacts, can differ over vast swaths of Earth.

Center for Aerosol Impacts on Climate and the Environment

The laboratory portion of the study was conducted with other researchers at the National Science Foundation-supported Center for Aerosol Impacts on Climate and the Environment (CAICE), at which DeMott is a senior scientist. Based at University of California-San Diego, CAICE boasts the world’s most cutting-edge laboratory wave flumes that simulate closely how ocean waves send sea spray aerosols into the air. In turn, the researchers can study the biological and chemical makeup and transformations of these particles, and using specialized instruments, how they influence cloud formation. DeMott and colleagues compared these data to other measurements made over oceans.

The study offers one hypothetical explanation for why global climate models have consistently underestimated reflected, short-wave solar radiation in regions dominated by oceans, particularly in the southern hemisphere.

“Our paper gives a clearer picture of the behavior of major classes of atmospheric aerosols in cold clouds – factors that need to go into global-scale climate modeling,” DeMott said.

Added Nick Anderson, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences, which funded the research: “The development of clouds and precipitation is a core issue for understanding weather and climate processes. By studying ice nuclei, which can be considered a building block for clouds, these researchers will help piece together the puzzle of how clouds and precipitation form, especially over remote oceanic regions.”



82 thoughts on “Salty sea spray affects the lifetimes of clouds, researchers find

  1. What with all of these unaccounted for things now being discovered, it’s truly amazing how well the models worked. …/sarc

      • So far as is known, there is n experimental evidence that ice crystals can nucleate on a single molecule of CO2, and since atmospheric CO2 molecules are on average about 13 molecular layers away from each other , there is no evidence that they can operate in concert.

        Thus further reducing the likelihood that CO2 has anything to do with the climate.


      • george e smith,

        Aren’t you mixing up SO2 with CO2? SO2 can oxidize to SO3, which attracts water and forms drops which reflect sunlight… But that is more likely for the aerosol discussion…

      • I can sea you are sea sawing on this.
        I thought salt spray would slow down the formation of ice or is it special salt like a manager we had some years ago when the weather was particularly cold who asked me “What are we doing to stop the salt saturaters from freezing?”

        James Bull

    • I remember Rumsfeld being mocked in the mainstream media when he referred to “unknown unknowns”. I didn’t particularly like him but he was stating the situation correctly.

      The one valid criticism was that he left out the things we choose to ignore; ie. the “unknown knowns”. Judith Curry refers to such things as pink flamingos (as opposed to black swans). Curry points out that the alarmist scientists can’t explain several important things about the climate. As she says:

      Failing to even try to understand climate change during these periods in the recent past is a recipe for fooling ourselves about what has caused the recent warming, and how the future climate will evolve.

      She was being way too nice. If the alarmists can’t explain natural variability, their predictions are completely bogus; pure hubris (the gods always punish hubris).

    • The longest record of the lifetime of a cloud is about 15 minutes. Clouds only indicate the presence of comparatively colder air layers. It is to be remembered that water vapour covers the whole sky all the time, except at the poles. If you watch one cloud intently you will witness it deteriorating then reforming slightly forwards of its apparent motion, giving the clue to which direction colder air is flowing. It suggests that clouds only appear to be moving, an illusion to us because we cannot see cold. A cloud merely signals the presence of an air current. Any study on clouds is therefore like studying traffic lights and pondering what influences are present when red changes to green.

      • Never thought about clouds that way before. Would infrared be sensitive enough to show the cold(er) air flow?

  2. Gee,—-I didn’t see any mention of the massive particulate spraying from aircraft–geoengineering as it is known. I bet the author just forgot to mention that.

    (Note: this site does not allow discussion of ‘chemtrails’ or related subjects. Thanks. -mod)

    • All aircraft in the world combined are far smaller than even a modest, regional sea spray. While planes do make some contrails, they just aren’t nearly as big.

  3. Judicial Watch,

    General request for any and all related government e-mails with regard to Climate Change, Global Warming, EPA etal the lot.

    Clog up the system so bad they can not even take out the trash of the shredded evidence.

  4. This is, along with Schmidt’s nonsense, seems to be part of a new approach that is gaining some momentum 1) claims it’s all more complicated than we though, 2) it could all “blow up” at any time because all these moderators impact the “tipping point” in ways we might not be able to predict 3) we need more money to study this.

    Fortunately a great many people have just tuned this stuff out…

  5. This 2008 paper by Kump and Pollard (involving modeling) concluded that low biological productivity in the very hot Cretaceous seas served as a positive feedback, in the there were fewer CCNs, leading to fewer clouds, and hence higher temperatures. GCMs reliant on CO2 alone can’t explain the heat and equability (equator to pole) of Cretaceous climate.

    Amplification of Cretaceous Warmth by Biological Cloud Feedbacks

    The extreme warmth of particular intervals of geologic history cannot be simulated with climate models, which are constrained by the geologic proxy record to relatively modest increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Recent recognition that biological productivity controls the abundance of cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) in the unpolluted atmosphere provides a solution to this problem. Our climate simulations show that reduced biological productivity (low CCN abundance) provides a substantial amplification of CO2-induced warming by reducing cloud lifetimes and reflectivity. If the stress of elevated temperatures did indeed suppress marine and terrestrial ecosystems during these times, this long-standing climate enigma may be solved.

    Here’s a discussion of it by a consensus adherent:

      • Sorry, but why should I bother devoting any time to a paper issued out of a university that has shown that it is institutionally committed to shoddy science, shoddy internal investigations and, as a result, shoddy morals? Anyone at Penn State with any integrity should have packed up and left by now. I’m sure there are those who will point out that good science can be done anywhere if the person is a real scientist. This is true, but if I’m looking for a diamond, I’ll search in the diamond mines, not the garbage pits. So, sorry, my time in life is limited, I won’t spend a second of it with papers issued by anyone willing to work at such an institution.

      • George,

        Strange response by a commenter who, below, mentions the importance of microbes as CCNs.

        Fine if you don’t share my appreciation of this paper, but IMO it offers a convincing explanation for the failure of GCMs to model the Cretaceous. An important reason why the IPCC and its GIGO computer gamers’ models have failed so miserably is their ignorance of clouds.

      • Patrick,

        It’s not always easy even for good tenured academics to switch institutions, and they have mortgages and families, like anyone else.

  6. Sea spray particulates have been proposed as an important factor in cloud nucleation for decades, ever since the importance of nucleation substances was first recognized. Nothing new here.
    Now the fun part:
    If you have huge amounts of Chlorine from sea spray lofted high into the atmosphere, what role is left for relatively trivial amounts of CFCs in the Ozone Hole fiasco.

      • And even by microbes. Somebody ingeniously figured out how to catch rain drops individually (think on that).

        What they discovered (somewhere back east) was that nearly every raindrop (back there at the time) had a colony of microbes in it, that had done their split and split during the growth of the droplet that nucleated on their ancestral microbe.

        But on a CO2 molecule; nyet !


  7. @Anthony “Yes, clouds, which cover 60 percent of the Earth’s surface at any given time.” Not a sentence.

    Ten years ago, didn’t we hear over and over that the GCM’s didn’t quantify clouds very well? Is this paper an admission that they have had it wrong all along, and all the model runs ever made are completely incorrect?

  8. Personally, I see papers like this as showing that skeptics are having a very real input on the evolution of the climate conversation. Every one of these is an admission that skeptics were right when they said that the climate is too complex for modeling if you don’t take each element into consideration on its own merits. Each of the papers may be more funding spent, but when they come out with useful data, there is value in that money spent. Each time they are forced to find “yet another excuse for the models being off,” they are building the opportunity to make the model useful in the end. As it is, they have a “Sim City” type of model, or in reality, a “simulation,” but if they are incorporating what they discover trying to explain the pause, they will move their “simulation” towards a potential model in time. Of course, if they aren’t attempting to incorporate the new information, then the intent to destroy the world as we know it is “hard coded” into THEIR programming.

  9. “The most soluble materials tend to be ionic salts or materials that separate into ions with positive or negative charges when they dissolve. Sodium Chloride (NaCl) is one of these. It is the same thing as table salt, but you don’t see crystals of table salt floating around in the ocean, do you? Instead, the Na + and Cl- exist as separate ions attached to water molecules.”

    • You’re a Googling genius. Some of your discoveries can be found in standard high school text books.

    • True, a place with a severe shortage of lobster salad sandwiches and fried clams. Otherwise a great place to live, from an ex- New Englander.

    • Jumping to conclusions here, David.
      For many years the best shiphandling computer was at a place in The Netherlands near the German border.
      It all depends on the people, not the location.

      • Not at all Oldseadog. You miss the point. For ocean research one assumes that a certain amount of hands-on on-site experimentation is required (though I accept not always). A ship-handling simulator is a different matter – you don’t have to be anywhere near water or a ship for it to be useful just as you don’t have to be anywhere near an airfield or an aircraft for a flight simulator to fulfil its function – just ask all those people with flight sim programs on the computers.

      • And, if all you are doing is playing computer games, as these people seem to be, and with no need to connect to reality, then it doesn’t matter where you are.

  10. The simple fact is that the “consensus science” crowd does not know how the planet’s climate works. It is obvious that one of the most important things to understand is our sun’s heating of the surface of the planet and that means understanding all aspects of clouds since they have a major impact on Solar irradiance reaching said surface. (That plus how the sun itself might vary over time and how our orbit around it might vary over time.)

    They don’t know clouds. They don’t really understand the oceans and how they distribute heat around the globe. Heck, They don’t even understand that putting the thermometers in the middle of payment at airports will make the things read to high and not to low. (they get the “adjustments” wrong)

    It is a sad, sad state of ignorance that the 97% find themselves!

    • Mark
      Electromagnetics states the electron as the force carrier and “Under the right circumstances light can be used to push electrons, freeing them from the surface of a solid. This process is called the photoelectric effect (or photoelectric emission or photoemission), a material that can exhibit this phenomena is said to be photoemissive, and the ejected electrons are called photoelectrons; but there is nothing that would distinguish them from other electrons. All electrons are identical to one another in mass, charge, spin, and magnetic moment.”

  11. I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now,
    From up and down and still somehow,
    It’s clouds’ illusions I recall,
    I really don’t know clouds at all.
    ~joni mitchell

  12. Did I read this correctly? Are climate scientists just now discovering that you need condensation nuclei to form clouds?

    I learned this many years ago when I was an undergrad in Chemical Engineering.

    • Water has a very high surface tension compared to some other liquids. (ethanol for example)

      A spherical droplet has an internal excess pressure (over ambient) of 2t/r) where t is the surface tension in newton/meter and r is the droplet radius.

      Ergo to form a droplet of zero radius, requires an internal excess pressure of infinity.

      Consequently it is much easier to grow a droplet when starting from a finite radius substrate.

      Water condenses extremely readily on any flat surface, but it doesn’t like to condense on itself starting with a single molecule.


      That’s also why water superheats if very clean pure water is heated (nuke) without some dust or something to start steam bubbles at a finite radius. Never nuke very clean water. Put the coffee grounds in BEFORE you heat it, if you don’t want a cup of water to explode suddenly in your face as superheated steam.

  13. Sea spray particulates as an important factor in cloud nucleation:

    OK, let’s turn this thought around.

    Where are the globe’s highest rates of sea spray?
    Antarctic explorers and even ships venturing around ‘the Horn’ feared the wild seas and storms around Antarctica. So Antarctica is frequently covered by clouds?

    California enjoys good surf and sea spray. Why the redwoods and sequoias require some salt spray.
    So California should also be cloud covered?

    One wonders just where in the world, sea spray actually causes clouds? Sure there are places where sea spray and clouds occur together but there is that nagging correlation is not causation notion. Causation implies that everywhere there is significant sea spray there will be significant clouds.

    • ATheoK…..”redwoods and sequoia’s” All along the coast is dense nightime fog that contributes to that 60 inches of precipitation those trees need. San Francisco summer is famously “the coldest winter I ever spent” according to M Twain

    • Even with nucleation sources, you still need lots of water in the atmosphere. The oceans off CA are cold, so they don’t evaporate as much water as you would find elsewhere. For much of central and southern CA as you go inland, the land causes the air to warm so the relative humidity drops fast.

  14. I’m Sorry! But these “scientists” are dumber then a wooden fence post! This was taught in Jr High School General Science back in the 1950s. They need to go back to school and this time
    Winds over salty seas are the creator and cleaner of the atmosphere we enjoy. A prime part of the Air-Conditioner that moves heat energy from the surface up to the Troposphere to be radiated into space…pg

  15. Hypothetical…
    You’ve got all the conditions necessary to create a cloud, nucleus, water vapor.
    But no forcing to condense it.
    Is that what is happening here:

      • I’ve seen the affect in person. It’s not faked.
        B52s don’t go fast enough to generate the kind of shock wave that a jet can create.

    • What’s happening here is the low pressure area causing the temperature of the air to drop to the point where RH exceeds 100%.

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