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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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This High-Tech Material Can Change Shape Like an Octopus
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Octopuses can do some pretty amazing things with their skin, like “see” light, resist the pull of their own sticky suction cups, and blend in seamlessly with their surroundings. That last part now has the U.S. Army interested, as Co.Design reports. The military branch’s research office has funded the development a new type of morphing material that works like an octopus’s dynamic skin.

The skin of an octopus is covered in small, muscular bumps called papillae that allow them to change textures in a fraction of a second. Using this mechanism, octopuses can mimic coral, rocks, and even other animals. The new government-funded research—conducted by scientists at Cornell University—produced a device that works using a similar principle.

“Technologies that use stretchable materials are increasingly important, yet we are unable to control how they stretch with much more sophistication than inflating balloons,” the scientists write in their study, recently published in the journal Science. “Nature, however, demonstrates remarkable control of stretchable surfaces.”

The membrane of the stretchy, silicone material lays flat most of the time, but when it’s inflated with air, it can morph to form almost any 3D shape. So far, the technology has been used to imitate rocks and plants.

You can see the synthetic skin transform from a two-dimensional pad to 3D models of objects in the video below:

It’s easy to see how this feature could be used in military gear. A soldier’s suit made from material like this could theoretically provide custom camouflage for any environment in an instant. Like a lot of military technology, it could also be useful in civilian life down the road. Co.Design writer Jesus Diaz brings up examples like buttons that appear on a car's dashboard only when you need them, or a mixing bowl that rises from the surface of the kitchen counter while you're cooking.

Even if we can mimic the camouflage capabilities of cephalopods, though, other impressive superpowers, like controlling thousands of powerful suction cups or squeezing through spaces the size of a cherry tomato, are still the sole domain of the octopus. For now.

[h/t Co.Design]

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Animals
Watch a School of Humpback Whales 'Fish' Using Nets Made of Bubbles 

Just like humans, humpback whales catch many fish at once by using nets—but instead of being woven from fibers, their nets are made of bubbles.

Unique to humpbacks, the behavior known as bubble-net feeding was recently captured in a dramatic drone video that was created by GoPro and spotted by Smithsonian. The footage features a school of whales swimming off Maskelyne Island in British Columbia, Canada, in pursuit of food. The whales dive down, and a large circle of bubbles forms on the water's surface. Then, the marine mammals burst into the air, like circus animals jumping through a ring, and appear to swallow their meal.

The video offers a phenomenal aerial view of the feeding whales, but it only captures part of the underwater ritual. It begins with the group's leader, who locates schools of fish and krill and homes in on them. Then, it spirals to the water's surface while expelling air from its blowhole. This action creates the bubble ring, which works like a net to contain the prey.

Another whale emits a loud "trumpeting feeding call," which may stun and frighten the fish into forming tighter schools. Then, the rest of the whales herd the fish upwards and burst forth from the water, their mouths open wide to receive the fruits of their labor.

Watch the intricate—and beautiful—feeding process below:

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