Storm Clouds Crawling With Bacteria

Hailstones: A Window into the Microbial and Chemical Inventory of a Storm Cloud

The storm clouds in Earth's atmosphere are filled with microbial life, according to a new study.

The research, published today (Jan. 23) in the journal PLoS One, revealed that hailstones  drawn from storm clouds harbor several species of bacteria that tend to reside on plants, as well as thousands of organic compounds normally found in soil. Some of the bacterial species can seed the tiny ice crystals that lead to rain, suggesting they play a role in causing rain.

"Those storm clouds are quite violent phenomena," said study co-author Tina Santl Temkiv, an environmental chemist at Aarhus University in Denmark. "They are sucking huge amounts of air from under the clouds, and that's how the bacteria probably got into the cloud."


Storm clouds frequently form in the summer period in temperate climate zones. Studies on these inaccessible and short-lived atmospheric habitats have been scarce. We report here on the first comprehensive biogeochemical investigation of a storm cloud using hailstones as a natural stochastic sampling tool. A detailed molecular analysis of the dissolved organic matter in individual hailstones via ultra-high resolution mass spectrometry revealed the molecular formulae of almost 3000 different compounds. Only a small fraction of these compounds were rapidly biodegradable carbohydrates and lipids, suitable for microbial consumption during the lifetime of cloud droplets. However, as the cloud environment was characterized by a low bacterial density (Me = 1973 cells/ml) as well as high concentrations of both dissolved organic carbon (Me = 179 µM) and total dissolved nitrogen (Me = 30 µM), already trace amounts of easily degradable organic compounds suffice to support bacterial growth. The molecular fingerprints revealed a mainly soil origin of dissolved organic matter and a minor contribution of plant-surface compounds. In contrast, both the total and the cultivable bacterial community were skewed by bacterial groups (γ-Proteobacteria, Sphingobacteriales and Methylobacterium) that indicated the dominance of plant-surface bacteria. The enrichment of plant-associated bacterial groups points at a selection process of microbial genera in the course of cloud formation, which could affect the long-distance transport and spatial distribution of bacteria on Earth. Based on our results we hypothesize that plant-associated bacteria were more likely than soil bacteria (i) to survive the airborne state due to adaptations to life in the phyllosphere, which in many respects matches the demands encountered in the atmosphere and (ii) to grow on the suitable fraction of dissolved organic matter in clouds due to their ecological strategy. We conclude that storm clouds are among the most extreme habitats on Earth, where microbial life exists.

Copyright: © 2013 Šantl-Temkiv et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. }

   Living on a cloud

In the past, researchers have found bacterial life in clouds that drift over mountaintops. Bacteria have been found as far up as 24.8 miles (40 kilometers) and may even survive as spores into space, Temkiv said. [Holey Clouds: Gallery of Formations Cut By Airplanes]. 

Bacteria Pseudomonas syringae, serves as the nucleus for the formation of crystal snowflakes and hail. Owner photo: Shawn Doyle and Brent Christner, Louisiana State University

Temkiv and her colleagues wanted to see if bacteria lived in the violent storm clouds that hover above the Earth's surface. To find out, they studied 42 hailstones that had formed in a thunderstorm over Ljubljana, Slovenia, in May 2009.

After carefully removing the outer layer and sterilizing the hailstone, they analyzed its chemical composition.

The team found thousands of organic, or carbon-containing, compounds — nearly as many as found in a typical river, Temkiv said. In addition, they found several species of bacteria that normally live on plants. Some of the bacteria make a pinkish pigment that allows them to withstand the punishing ultraviolet rays in the atmosphere.

Some of bacteria found are ice-nucleators, meaning they can act as seeds for ice crystals to attach to in the clouds above Earth. When these same ice crystals get large enough, they fall as rain or snow, depending on the air temperature.

The findings suggest that bacteria could influence weather patterns, possibly making rain, Temkiv said.

"They may be growing in clouds, increasing in number and then modifying the chemistry in the cloud but also in the atmosphere indirectly," she told LiveScience.

The researchers think the bacteria come from the air hovering just above Earth that gets swept into the storm clouds through updrafts. That would suggest the atmosphere is a thread that can connect distant ecosystems, and that certain bacteria may be better at colonizing faraway environments, Pierre Amato, a researcher at France's Blaise Pascal University who was not involved in the study, wrote in an email. 

09.03.2012. Hawaii was recorded hailstones with bacterial nucleus, 10.8 length and a width of 5 inches. Source: NOAA and Live Sceince

"Clouds can be thought of as transient ecosystems selecting for certain [types of bacteria] that are better fitted than others, and that can thus quickly disperse over the globe," Amato said. "Understanding how microbes disperse is relevant, of course, for epidemiology, and also for microbial ecology."

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Magical Planet - Earth

50 Interesting Facts About The Earth

   Third Rock

Our home, Earth, is the third planet from the sun and the only world known to support an atmosphere with free oxygen, oceans of liquid water on the surface and — the big one — life.

   Squashed Sphere

It's not a perfect sphere. As Earth spins, gravity points toward the center of our planet (assuming for explanation's sake that Earth is a perfect sphere), and a centrifugal force pushes outward. But since this gravity-opposing force acts perpendicular to the axis of Earth, and Earth's axis is tilted, centrifugal force at the equator is not exactly opposed to gravity. This imbalance adds up at the equator, where gravity pushes extra masses of water and earth into a bulge, or "spare tire" around our planet.

   She's Got a Waistline

Mother Earth has a generous waistline: At the equator, the circumference of the globe is 24,901 miles (40,075 kilometers).

   On the Move

You may feel like you're standing still, but you're actually moving — fast. Depending on where you are on the globe, you could be spinning through space at just over 1,000 miles per hour. People on the equator move the fastest, while someone standing on the North or South pole would be perfectly still. (Imagine a basketball spinning on your finger. A random point on the ball's equator has farther to go in a single spin as a point near your finger. Thus, the point on the equator is moving faster.)

   Treks Around the Sun

Oh yeah, and the Earth isn't just spinning: It's also moving around the sun at 67,000 miles (107,826 km) per hour.

   It's Old

Researchers calculate the age of the Earth by dating both the oldest rocks on the planet and meteorites that have been discovered on Earth (meteorites and Earth formed at the same time, when the solar system was forming). Their findings? Earth is about 4.54 billion years old.

(Photo shown here, what may be the oldest known rocks on Earth, called the Nuvvuagittuq Belt on the coast of the Hudson Bay in Northern Quebec, and dating back to 4.28 billion years ago, scientists estimate.)

   Gets Recycled

The ground you're walking on is recycled. Earth's rock cycle transforms igneous rocks to sedimentary rocks to metamorphic rocks and back again. The cycle isn’t a perfect circle, but the basics work like this: Magma from deep in the Earth emerges and hardens into rock (that's the igneous part). Tectonic processes uplift that rock to the surface, where erosion shaves bits off. These tiny fragments get deposited and buried, and the pressure from above compacts them into sedimentary rocks such as sandstone. If sedimentary rocks get buried even deeper, they "cook" into metamorphic rocks under lots of pressure and heat. Along the way, of course, sedimentary rocks can be re-eroded or metamorphic rocks re-uplifted. But if metamorphic rocks get caught in a subduction zone where one piece of crust is pushing under another, they may find themselves transformed back into magma.

   Our Moon Quakes

Moonquakes, or "earthquakes" on the moon, do occur, though they are less common and less intense than those that shake Earth. According to USGS scientists, moonquakes seem to be related to tidal stresses associated with the varying distance between the Earth and moon. Moonquakes also tend to occur at great depths, about midway between the lunar surface and its center.

   Largest Earthquake

As of 2011, the largest earthquake to shake the United States was a magnitude-9.2 temblor that struck Prince William Sound, Alaska, on Good Friday, March 28, 1964. (Photos shows the Four Seasons Apartments in Anchorage, a six-story lift-slab reinforced concrete building, which cracked to the ground during the quake.) And the world's largest earthquake was a magnitude 9.5 in Chile on May 22, 1960, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

   Hot Spot

The fiery award for Earth's hottest spot goes to El Azizia, Libya, where temperature records from weather stations reveal it hit 136 degrees Fahrenheit (57.8 degrees Celsius) on Setp. 13, 1922, according to NASA Earth Observatory. There have likely been hotter locations beyond the network of weather stations. (The image was created from data collected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Aqua satellite.)

   Coldest Spot

It may come as no surprise that the coldest place on Earth can be found in Antarctica, but the chill factor is somewhat unbelievable. Winter temperatures there can drop below minus 100 degrees F (minus 73 degrees C). The lowest temperature ever recorded on Earth came from Russia's Vostok Station, where records show the air plunged to a bone-chilling minus 128.6 degrees F (minus 89.2 degrees C) on July 21,1983, according to the USGS.

   Extreme Continent

The southern continent is a place of extremes, with the Antarctic ice cap containing some 70 percent of Earth's fresh water and about 90 percent of its ice.

   Holy Stalagmite!

Spelunkers ahoy! The largest confirmed stalagmite in the world can be found in Cuba in the Cuevo San Martin Infierno. This behemoth rises 220 feet (67.2 meters) tall.

   Weird Gravity

Because our globe isn't a perfect sphere, its mass is distributed unevenly. And uneven mass means slightly uneven gravity.

One mysterious gravitational anomaly is in the Hudson Bay of Canada (shown above). This area has lower gravity than other regions, and a 2007 study finds that now-melted glaciers are to blame.

The ice that once cloaked the area during the last ice age has long since melted, but the Earth hasn't entirely snapped back from the burden. Since gravity over an area is proportional to the mass atop that region, and the glacier's imprint pushed aside some of the Earth's mass, gravity is a bit less strong in the ice sheet's imprint. The slight deformation of the crust explains 25 percent to 45 percent of the unusually low gravity; the rest may be explained by a downward drag caused the motion of magma in Earth's mantle (the layer just beneath the crust), researchers reported in the journal Science.

   Creeping Magnetic Pole

Earth has a magnetic field because of the ocean of hot, liquid metal that sloshes around its solid iron core, or that's what geophysicists are pretty certain is the cause. This flow of liquid creates electric currents, which, in turn, generate the magnetic field. Since the early 19th century, Earth's magnetic north pole has been creeping northward by more than 600 miles (1,100 kilometers), according to NASA scientists. The rate of movement has increased, with the pole migrating northward at about 40 miles (64 km) per year currently, compared with the 10 miles (16 km) per year estimated in the 20th century.

   Tallest Mountain

And the title for tallest mountain goes to … either Mount Everest or Mauna Kea. The summit of Mount Everest is higher above sea level than the summit of any other mountain, extending some 29,029 feet (8,848 meters) high. However, when measured from its true base to summit, Mauna Kea takes the prize, measuring a length of about 56,000 feet (17,170 m), according to the USGS. Here are some of Mauna Kea's detailed measurements: The highest point is 13,680 ft (4,170 m) above sea level; the flanks of Mauna Loa continue another 16,400 ft (5,000 m) below sea level to the seafloor; and the volcano's central portion has depressed the seafloor another 26,000 ft (8,000 m) in the shape of an inverted cone, reflecting the profile of the volcano above it.

   Pole Flip-Flops

In fact over the past 20 million years, our planet has settled into a pattern of a pole reversal about every 200,000 to 300,000 years; as of 2012, however, it has been more than twice that long since the last reversal. These reversals aren't split-second flips, and instead occur over hundreds or thousands of years. During this lengthy stint, the magnetic poles start to wander away from the region around the spin poles (the axis around which our planet spins), and eventually end up switched around, according to Cornell University astronomers.

   Two Moons?

Earth may once have had two moons. A teensy second moon — spanning about 750 miles (1,200 km) wide — may have orbited Earth before it catastrophically slammed into the other one. This titanic clash may explain why the two sides of the surviving lunar satellite are so different from each other, said scientists in the Aug. 4, 2011, issue of the journal Nature. [Read full story]

   Has Another Moon

Some scientists claim Earth has two moons currently. According to researchers reporting in the Dec. 20, 2011, issue of the planetary science journal ICARUS, a space rock at least 3.3-meter (1-meter) wide orbits Earth at any given time. They're not always the same rock, but rather an ever-changing cast of "temporary moons," say the scientists. Their theoretical model posits that our planet's gravity captures asteroids as they pass near us on their way around the sun; when one of these space rocks gets drawn in, it typically makes three irregularly shaped swings around Earth, staying with us for about nine months before hurtling on its way. [Read full story] 

   Where Rocks Walk

Rocks can walk on Earth, at least they do at the pancake-flat lakebed called Racetrack Playa in Death Valley. There, a perfect storm can move rocks sometimes weighing tens or hundreds of pounds. Most likely, ice-encrusted rocks get inundated by meltwater from the hills above the playa, according to NASA researchers. When everything's nice and slick, a stiff breeze kicks up, and whoosh, the rock is off.

   Reaching the Top

On May 8, 1978, climbers Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler became the first to summit Everest without the aid of oxygen. Messner described his feelings upon reaching the top like this: "I am nothing more than a single narrow gasping lung, floating over the mists and summits."

   Longest Mountain Chain

To find the world's longest mountain range you'd have to look down, way down. Called the mid-ocean ridge, the underwater chain of volcanoes spans some 40,389 miles (65,000 km). As lava erupts from the seafloor it creates more crust, adding to the mountain chain, which stretches around the globe.

   Most Happening Places

Coral reefs support the most species per unit area of any of the planet's ecosystems, rivaling rain forests. And while they are made up of tiny coral polyps, together they are the largest living structures on Earth, with some visible even from space, according to NOAA.

   Deepest Spot

How low can you go? The deepest point on the ocean floor is 35,813 feet (10,916 meters) below sea level in the Mariana Trench. The lowest point on Earth not covered by ocean is 8,382 feet (2,555) meters below sea level, but good luck walking there: That spot is in the Bentley Subglacial Trench in Antarctica, buried under lots and lots of ice.

   Landly Lows

The lowest point on land, however, is relatively accessible. It's the Dead Sea between Jordan, Israel and the West Bank. The surface of this super-salty lake is 1,388 feet (423 m) below sea level.

   Where Lakes Explode

… And lakes explode. In Cameroon and on the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo there are three deadly lakes: Nyos, Monoun and Kivu. All three are crater lakes that sit above volcanic earth. Magma below the surface releases carbon dioxide into the lakes, resulting in a deep, carbon dioxide-rich layer right above the lakebed. That carbon dioxide can be released in an explosion, asphyxiating any passersby.

   Losing Water

As the climate changes, glaciers are retreating and contributing to rising sea levels. It turns out that one particular glacier range is contributing a whopping 10 percent of all the meltwater in the world. That honor belongs to the Canadian Arctic, which lost a volume equivalent to 75 percent of Lake Erie between 2004 and 2009.

   Measured Melt

Humans leave our mark on the planet in all sorts of weird ways. For example, nuclear tests in the 1950s threw a dusting of radioactivity into the atmosphere. Those radioactive particles eventually fell as rain and snow, and some of that precipitation got trapped in glaciers, where it forms a little "you are here" layer for scientists trying to date the age of glacial ice. Some glaciers are melting so fast, however, that this half-century of history is gone.

   It Was Purple

It used to be purple … well, life on early Earth may have been just as purple as it is green today, suspects Shil DasSarma, a microbial geneticist at the University of Maryland. Ancient microbes, he said, might have used a molecule other than chlorophyll to harness the sun's rays, one that gave the organisms a violet hue, he suggests.

 DasSarma thinks chlorophyll appeared after another light-sensitive molecule called retinal was already present on early Earth. Retinal, today found in the plum-colored membrane of a photosynthetic microbe called halobacteria, absorbs green light and reflects back red and violet light, the combination of which appears purple. The idea may explain why even though the sun transmits most of its energy in the green part of the visible spectrum, chlorophyll absorbs mainly blue and red wavelengths.

   It's Electric!

Thunder and lightning reveal our planet's fiercer side. A single stroke of lightning can heat the air to around 54,000 degrees Fahrenheit (30,000 degrees Celsius), according to educational website Windows to the Universe, causing the air to expand rapidly. That ballooning air creates a shock wave and ultimately a boom, better known as thunder.

   Covered in Seas

The oceans cover some 70 percent of Earth's surface, yet humans have only explored about 5 percent, meaning 95 percent of the planet's vast seas have never been seen.

   Filled with Riches

And these vast seas are rich, holding more than 20 million tons of gold. But don't grab your mining hat just yet, the metal is so dilute that each liter of seawater contains, on average, about 13 billionths of a gram of gold. Undissolved gold is also tucked away in rocks on the seafloor, and though there's not efficient way of getting at that precious metal, according to NOAA, if we could extract all of it, each person on Earth could have 9 pounds of the shiny stuff.

   Sprinkled with Cosmic Dust

Every day our planet is sprinkled with fairy dust … or dust from the heavens. On a daily basis, about 100 tons of interplanetary material (mostly in the form of dust) drifts down to the Earth's surface. The tiniest particles are released by comets as their ices vaporize near the sun.

   Treks Around a Star

The Earth is approximately 93 million miles (150 million kilometers) from the sun. At this distance, it takes about 8 minutes and 19 seconds for sunlight to reach our planet.

   Mad Moon

Many researchers think some large object crashed into Earth long ago, and the resulting debris coalesced to form our moon. It is unclear though if that colliding object was a planet, asteroid or comet, with some scientists thinking a Mars-size hypothetical world named Theia was the instigator.

   Once a Supercontinent

The Earth's continents are thought to have collided to become supercontinents and broken apart again several times in Earth's 4.5 billion year history. The most recent supercontinent was Pangaea, which began to break apart about 200 million years ago; the landmasses that comprised Pangaea eventually wandered into the current configuration of continents.

   How Mountains Form

While the shifting slabs of rocks called tectonic plates are unseen to us, some of their effects are monumental. Take the Himalayas, which stretch 1,800 miles (2,900 km) along the border between India and Tibet. This immense mountain range began to form between 40 million and 50 million years ago, when India and Eurasia, driven by plate movement, collided. The tectonic crash led to the jagged Himalayan peaks.

   Most Active Erupter

Hawaii's Kilauea volcano does pop its top rather frequently, it's not Earth's most active erupter. That title goes to the Stromboli Volcano, off the west coast of southern Italy, which has been erupting nearly continuously for over 2,000 years, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Its spectacular incandescent explosions have earned it the moniker "Lighthouse of the Mediterranean."

   Super-Colossal Eruption

The largest volcanic eruption recorded by humans occurred in April 1815, the peak of the explosion of Mount Tambora. The eruption ranked 7 (or "super-colossal") on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI), which goes from 1 to 8 and is somewhat akin to the magnitude scale for earthquakes. The explosion is said to have been so loud it was heard on Sumatra Island, more than 1,200 miles (1,930 km) away. The death toll from the eruption was estimated at 71,000 people, and clouds of heavy ash descended on many far-away islands. [The 10 Biggest Volcanic Eruptions in History]

   Crowded Coastlines

Coastlines cover about 20 percent of U.S. land area (not including Alaska), and are home to more than 50 percent of the U.S. population, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

   Biggest Basin

The Pacific Ocean is by far Earth's largest ocean basin, covering an area of about 59 million square miles (155 million square kilometers) and containing more than half of the free water on Earth, according to NOAA. It's so big that all of the world's continents could fit into the Pacific basin.

   Breathing Giants

When we think about big life, whales and elephants come to mind. But try on this tree for size: The General Sherman giant sequoia is the largest known stem tree by volume on the planet. The trunk of the tree contains slightly more than 52,500 cubic feet (1,486.6 cubic meters) of material.

   Largest Living Thing

If you want to pinpoint the biggest organism on the planet, though, your best bet might be a really huge fungus. In 1992, scientists reporting in Nature revealed to the world a Armillaria, or honey mushroom, fungal organism that spans 2,200 acres in Oregon. There’s a slight chance that the offshoots of this mega-fungus aren't clones, but are simply closely related, but we’re in awe either way.

   World's Smallest Mammal

On the other end of the spectrum, there are plenty of teeny-tiny organisms on Earth, all the way down to single-cell life. But let's focus on something a little more cuddly: the Kitti's hog-nosed bat. This vulnerable species found in southeast Asia is only about 1 inch (29-33 millimeters) long and weighs only 0.071 ounces (2 grams), putting it in the running with Etruscan shrews, which are lighter but longer, for the world's smallest mammal. [World's Smallest Mammals]

   Crowded City

Don't like crowds? Stay away from Manila. This city in the Philippines is the most densely populated in the world, with the most people crammed into the smallest city limits (outlying suburbs don't count). As of the 2007 census, 1,660,714 people lived in 14.8 square miles (38.55 square kilometers).

   Open Space

Lovers of solitude might try Greenland on for size. This nation boasts the least population density of any on Earth. As of 2010, 56,534 people lived in 836,330 square miles (2,166,086 square kilometers) of elbow room. Most of the settlements in Greenland are clustered on the coast, however, so this low population density is somewhat misleading.

   Driest Spot

The driest spot on Earth is the Atacama Desert of Chile and Peru. In the center of this desert, there are places where rain has never been recorded.

   First to Reach South Pole

Speaking of deserts, the first person to successfully traverse the desert of Antarctica to reach the South Pole was Norwegian Roald Amundsen. He and four other men used sleds pulled by dogs to make it to the Pole. Amundsen would later attribute his success to careful planning.

   Other Earths

Finally, there could be more planets like ours. Space scientists have found evidence of Earth-like planets orbiting distant stars, including an alien planet called Kepler 22-b circling in the habitable zone of a star much like ours. Whether any of these planets will harbor life is an open question.

   Its Skies Dazzle With Dancing Lights

Auroras occur when charged particles from the sun are funneled toward Earth by the planet's magnetic field and collide with the upper atmosphere near the poles. They are more active when the sun's activity peaks during its 11-year solar weather cycle.

The southern lights, also called aurora australis, are seen less often than aurora borealis, the northern lights, because few people brave Antarctica's dark, freezing winters. Shown here, a 2008 image taken from Antarctica of the dazzling sky lights.

Magical Planet - Earth, do you agree?

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