How Fungi Create the Amazon’s Clouds

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Adalberto Rios Lanz/Sexto Sol

Mist and clouds above the Amazon are formed in part by the vegetation below

When you mess with the Amazon rainforest you mess with a lot of things — 2.5 million species of insects, 40,000 species of plants, 1,300 species of birds, and those are only the known ones. The 1.4 billion of acres of thriving, sprawling biology that cover the Amazon help drive the very metabolism of a continent. And now it appears that the rainforest is at least partly responsible for something else: the Amazonian clouds themselves. Clear-cut the land and you could, in effect, clear-cut the sky.

That improbable idea comes courtesy of a  paper just released in the journal Science, the product of work done by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany. The clouds in the Amazon, just like everywhere else, consist of water vapor clinging to tiny clumps of carbon compounds. In forested areas, the carbon compounds are byproducts of plants’ metabolism; in populated areas, they are often from human pollution. Most of the time, atmospheric chemists can see the carbon clumping taking place; when the microscopic bits reach a certain size, they are able to attract and hold water. In the Amazon, the clumps seem to appear out of nowhere, nearly fully formed. No one has ever been able to catch them in the act of coming together.
(PHOTOS: Brazil’s Controversial Belo Monte Dam)

Max Planck graduate student Christopher Pohlker traveled to a pristine stretch of forest in Brazil to see if he could solve the riddle. He gathered a bit of rainforest air, using an instrument that sucks a sample through a fine nozzle and sprays it onto a ceramic square half a millimeter on each side, where any microscopic airborne particles get stuck. To figure out the chemical make-up of those particles, he and his colleagues brought the squares to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California and placed them in the facility’s synchrotron, where X-rays of varying energies were fired at the collected specks. The specific frequencies that were absorbed could reveal the samples’ chemical makeup.

What the researchers found was a mix of carbon compounds, plus one other thing: potassium — and that told them a lot. Potassium salts appear to be good at getting carbon compounds to stick together. The larger a carbon cluster was, the larger the ratio of carbon compounds to potassium within it, suggesting that just a certain amount of potassium was needed to get the accretion process started, and after that the carbon compounds kept piling on of their own accord. That, in turn, would get water droplets forming.
(More: Amazonia: What’s Happening to the World’s Biggest Rainforest?)

The real surprise was the source of the potassium. Forest fires often release the element into the air, but there were none burning when Pohlker took the samples. “Since we can rule out the burning source in our samples,” he says, “the other source seemed to be the biosphere itself.” In other words, the forest.

Plants and fungi can release potassium into the air under certain conditions. Fungi in particular are veritable  fountains of the stuff: when they shoot out their spores, they also spray out a potassium-rich fluid. Biologists working with leaf molds and other fungi in the lab had noticed this, and atmospheric chemists had noticed that there seemed to be a lot of potassium floating above the Amazon in the wet season. Pohlker’s adviser, chemist Meinrat Andreae, in fact recently reported that a third of the Earth’s land surface is probably covered with microscopic fungi. But until now, no one had linked potassium from fungi to cloud formation. “We think the residue of these droplets is what we are observing,” Pohlker says. “It’s really impressive.”

Pohlker, Andreae, and their colleagues ran the numbers and  found that the amount of potassium particles released from microscopic fungi in the lab was indeed enough to account for the concentration of potassium they observed in their samples. But there are still some crucial experiments left to do: specifically, they have not yet actually verified that the microscopic fungi living on the forest trees in the Amazon are in fact releasing the potassium they see in the air. “What we’re still lacking is a demonstration that if you go to a plant in the Amazon and put a plastic bag around it, you’ll see these particles coming off,” Andreae says. “That’s one of the things we want to do next.”

Even when that’s done, it’s not clear everyone will be sold on the new findings — or at least  on their thoroughness. “Are these particles only relevant directly over the rain forest, or are they lofted by convection and transported to surrounding regions?” wrote Yale University professor and climate modeler Trude Storelvmo in an email. Yet another topic for future research is the question of whether the Amazon is the only rainforest that gets the potassium cycle going this way or if other — perhaps all — rainforests do it.  What’s settled science now, however, is that just as the Amazon is dependent on the rain and sunlight provided by the sky, the sky is dependent on the nourishment from the forest. The circle of life just added another ring.

(More: Anthropocene: Why You Should Get Used to The Age of Man — and Woman)

This story also appears on discovermagazine.com

32 comments
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Kooday SearchEngine
Kooday SearchEngine

Wow, there are about 30% of the commenters here who take the article serious. The rest are either apathetic  or could care less. This almost in itself single-handedly mirrors the reality of the real world which one finds a majority of mankind could care less about anything environmental. The comments explain and reveal far more than the article could have ever hoped to accomplish.

SixSixSix
SixSixSix

So let me get this right. The mist over a rain forest is kind of like a dandruff created by fungi. Once again, truth is stranger than fiction...

Edwin Galdamez
Edwin Galdamez

If this article is right, anyone should be able to put it to the test even in New York.   it's easy, get a banana and release it from the top of a high building.   A cloud should form in central park.

marsmotel
marsmotel

Let's build a whole country of log cabins right there in the heart of the Amazon.  No more trees, no more fungi.  Sounds like a plan to me.  Let's develop that land quickly!

BuckUpUs
BuckUpUs

Yes, I too am disappointed the article is about a stupid jungle and not IT related. Uggggggggggg.  I thought for sure it was about cloud computing, which I have a huge passion for. Uggggggggg

hongryhawg
hongryhawg

Would you call it a Mushroom Cloud?

computed
computed

This is why the focus of the debate needs to move back from "Global Warming" an argument that lacks a concise plan of attack, but is chocked full of get rich schemes.

To "Conservation" an argument that simply implies "consume less", and the real losers are the retailers, and mega corporations, that are selling the world piece mail to the disposable consumer.

Gas Predictor
Gas Predictor

Our grandchildren will wonder why one of the largest retailers on the Internet named itself after an empty desert.

BPollutin
BPollutin

That's funny!  As long as we continue to reproduce unchecked, you could be right...to a certain extent!

Max Maxwell
Max Maxwell

so lets do science, I'll elaborate you can jump in whenever you want, hmmmm no trees, no lakes no ponds no lush life , you get desert arid, dry no rain. no little lizards. worms or cutesy little furry animals.

  You have a forest. with trees, with algai, with all kids of wittle furry animals and rivers and streams, and alll kids of fertile moist forest floor soils and peat, and it generates plentiful rainfall to keep the forest going, hmmmm rain- healthy , no- rain no forest , hmmmm??? So in conclusion to our proposed problem after a bazillion think tanks, seventy five summits in every country except the one in question, with stops in uganda, somoli, japan, and france, the resutlts are in and go like this.

 "No chopee trees, when u choppee trees forest go bye bye, and we all suffer" ok children this public service announcement is over, resume you normal duties.

MarcusK123
MarcusK123

 I'm disappointed. I thought this was going to be about Amazon.com's cloud computing services.

Dano99
Dano99

In other words... no forest, no rain.  Brazilian farmers, try growing your crops in a desert because if you don't quit clear cutting the rain forest, that's what you'll have.  Need an example?? The "Petrified Forest" in North-eastern Arizona used to be a rain forest, now it's part of the "Painted Desert". 

BPollutin
BPollutin

I agree with you...but just remember, we can't even conserve properly here in the United States.  Our green index rating is off the charts terrible.  We're not any better at leaving a majority of the land for mother nature (i.e. 1% natural prairie left in Illinois).

Kooday SearchEngine
Kooday SearchEngine

I live in the over here in the E.U., you know, the so-called Eco-Green region of the world that insists everyone else around the planet reflect their perfect model ? 

Sweden and Germany are some of the worst hypocritical offenders of saying one thing and covertly doing another. Germany almost single-handedly could be responsible for Borneo/Indonesian rainforest destruction so that they can create Bio-Diesel from Palm Oil and generate electricity from a couple power plants. 

Sweden has no means of creating ANY Ethanol for their Green-Vehicle program, yet they have contracted Brazilian companies to destroy over 30,ooo hectares of land in Ghana and even more in Zambia for Sugar Cane to be turned into Ethanol. Then is has to be shipped here. Europe has destroyed over 70% of their pristine old growth forested  lands. Now they are first to point the finger at other countries. No wonder our natural world falls short. 

It's not just the USA, it's everywhere. And not just the Amazon. Even chaparral habitats contribute greatly to climate moderation. 

Lucia Matias
Lucia Matias

And it is being destroyed with gusto by the Brazilians.

In a few decades, the Amazon Forest will nothing more than a tropical slum....

Mark D. Jordahl
Mark D. Jordahl

Brazil has actually reduced their deforestation rates dramatically in the last decade (although it is still a problem). In fact, they are working harder towards the reduction of their carbon footprint than almost any other nation. They need to be encouraged in - and applauded for - their efforts.

Vladimir Bellemo
Vladimir Bellemo

 If the U.S., England and Japan don't back off as the biggest illegal loggers of the Amazon, maybe you're right. But, not by any means, with "gusto" (which is not even a Portuguese word).

AthensGuy
AthensGuy

I like your response, but "with gusto" is avalid expression in the context used (and language used).  Gusto means "with enjoyment".

Kooday SearchEngine
Kooday SearchEngine

But that is the problem here "Jimmy the Greek", greed and selfishness are the very qualities for which are the motivational driver behind their perverted enjoyment.  The unfortunate thing is that ALL attention is paid mostly to the Amazonian Rainforest. There is an entire Earth and it's vegetation at play here. The Amazon is only a small part of that.

Mark D. Jordahl
Mark D. Jordahl

This is true, but the much larger issue is the clearing happening for soy plantations and cattle ranching. And the two are actually very much intertwined, as much of the soy grown in Brazil is used to feed cattle. It is the consumption of meat, much more than the consumption of trees, that is impacting the rainforest.

MicroscopeConsultant
MicroscopeConsultant

"2.5 million species of insects, 40,000 species of plants, 1,300 species of birds, and those are only the known ones. The 1.4 billion of acres of thriving.."

Such a diverse ecosystem. It's easy to see why the Amazon and it's caregivers need to be under the microscopeat all times. It's articles like this that keep us aware of the importance of protecting the Amazon.