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Plankton Make Clouds Brighter and the Earth Cooler

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Plankton, the tiny organisms that drift through the ocean (plotting to take over the world, if SpongeBob Squarepants is to be believed), may play a vital role in keeping the Earth cool. A new study from the University of Washington and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory finds that gases produced by plankton in the Southern Hemisphere create brighter clouds, reflecting sunlight.

The study, published in the journal Science Advances, found that clouds in the Southern Hemisphere are composed of smaller droplets in the summer, making them brighter than they would be otherwise. (Cloud reflectivity is based on both the amount of liquid they contain and the size of the droplets that liquid is spread across.)

A phytoplankton bloom off the coast of Alaska. Image Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Norman Kuring; USGS

Plankton double the concentration of water droplets in clouds in the summer, when phytoplankton bloom in the southern half of the world, according to the study. The tiny organisms produce gases like dimethyl sulfide that can seed cloud droplets, which form from aerosols. Caught up in sea spray, small particles of organic matter from plankton can also make their way into clouds, where they can absorb light. Over the course of the year, the increased brightness associated with these denser cloud droplets reflects an estimated 0.37 watts of solar energy per square foot of cloud. Meaning without plankton, the Earth would be even warmer.

Image Credit: Daniel McCoy / University of Washington

This adds to previous research showing that plankton are important climate mediators in the Southern Hemisphere. In the global north, however, their role is less understood, since there are more interfering aerosols from forests and pollution, among other factors. 

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Animals
Watch an Antarctic Minke Whale Feed in a First-of-Its-Kind Video
WWF
WWF

New research from the World Wildlife Fund is giving us a rare glimpse into the world of the mysterious minke whale. The WWF worked with Australian Antarctic researchers to tag minke whales with cameras for the first time, watching where and how the animals feed.

The camera attaches to the whale's body with suction cups. In the case of the video below, the camera accidentally slid down the side of the minke whale's body, providing an unexpected look at the way its throat moves as it feeds.

Minke whales are one of the smallest baleen whales, but they're still pretty substantial animals, growing 30 to 35 feet long and weighing up to 20,000 pounds. Unlike other baleen whales, though, they're small enough to maneuver in tight spaces like within sea ice, a helpful adaptation for living in Antarctic waters. They feed by lunging through the sea, gulping huge amounts of water along with krill and small fish, and then filtering the mix through their baleen.

The WWF video shows just how quickly the minke can process this treat-laden water. The whale could lunge, process, and lunge again every 10 seconds. "He was like a Pac-Man continuously feeding," Ari Friedlaender, the lead scientist on the project, described in a press statement.

The video research, conducted under the International Whaling Commission's Southern Ocean Research Partnership, is part of WWF's efforts to protect critical feeding areas for whales in the region.

If that's not enough whale for you, you can also watch the full 13-minute research video below:

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Keith Holmes/Hakai Institute
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Drone Captures Massive Swarm of Jellyfish Off British Columbia That Weighs More Than 70 Tons
Keith Holmes/Hakai Institute
Keith Holmes/Hakai Institute

Drones have served science in myriad ways, from planting trees to vacuuming marine debris to predicting tornadoes. Now, a team of researchers has used one to measure the size of a massive bloom of jellyfish off the coast of British Columbia, Canada. And it's a monster: According to a new paper in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series, the huge swarm weighed more than 70 tons.

That's at least 150,000 individual jellies.

"The size of the bloom surprised me. What was exciting was going from not being able to see the bloom easily, if at all, to instantly being able to find them from the air," says co-author Brian Hunt, the Hakai Professor in Oceanography at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C. "It is remarkable how tightly they group together."

Jellyfish bloom in Pruth Bay, British Columbia
Keith Holmes, Hakai Institute

The bloom is comprised of five species in the Aurelia genus, also known as moon jellies. They're found worldwide (and in aquarium exhibits), often gathering in quiet harbors and bays to feed on plankton, fish larvae, crustaceans, and mollusks.

Hunt and colleague Jessica Schaub conducted their survey in Pruth Bay, a peaceful waterway edged with dense forests, near Calvert Island on the province's central coast, roughly 375 miles north of Seattle. The Hakai Institute, a scientific research institution that supported the survey, faces the bay. The area is within the First Nations territories of the Heiltsuk and Wuikinuxv Nations.

This is the first time a drone has been used to locate and study jellyfish blooms, Hunt tells Mental Floss. Previously, scientists viewed the groups at water level, which provided a limited perspective on their true size and density. The aerial view can help researchers estimate the biomass of jellyfish more accurately and reveal aggregations' behavior, such as their movements in currents or tides.

The team deployed the drone from a research vessel positioned within the mass of invertebrates. While the drone captured aerial images, the researchers also sampled the waters with nets. Then, they compared the drone data and sampling, and estimated that the bloom could weigh anywhere from 70 to as much as 128 tons.

Jellyfish bloom in Pruth Bay, British Columbia
Keith Holmes, Hakai Institute

There isn't much long-term data about the blooms, Hunt says, but those living in the area are familiar with the jellies' appearances in the waterways. "I wouldn’t call these events common, but they are definitely consistent in their timing. We see this happening every four or so years, particularly the local fisherman who catch them as bycatch in their nets," William Housty, chair of the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department's board of directors, tells Mental Floss.

In the future, drones might help scientists interpret the blooms based on where, when, and how often they occur—as well as how they affect the surrounding ecosystem. Housty says these jellyfish may be following the pattern of warmer waters along the coast.

"We did notice higher numbers during the 2015 marine heatwave and the 2016 El Niño [also a warm event]," Hunt says. "It is possible that changes in the seasonal timing of the jellyfish life cycle might be as or more important than increasing numbers. For example, if jellyfish are more advanced in their life cycle in the spring, they might have a bigger predation impact on herring larvae."

Soon, thanks to aerial imagery, we might know more about the jellies' secret lives.

This story was made possible in part through the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.

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