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Entire Microbe Communities Live Up in the Clouds

Thousands of feet above your head, microbes are living—and reproducing—in the tiny drops of water that make up clouds

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Photo: Anyu

Microbes live in the dirt, in your bed and in your gut. They live in the deep freeze, in the trees and, even, says Caleb Scharf for Scientific American, in the breeze.

Thousands of feet above your head, microbes are living—and reproducing—in the tiny drops of water that make up clouds. “This suggests that clouds are quite literally another habitat for life on Earth, and with an average covering of 60% of the planetary surface represent a pretty major ecosystem,” says Scharf.

Along with clouds, new research found that microbes ride the vast streams of dust that blow across the planet, a global cycle that brings Asian dust to North America, African dust to South America, African dust to Australia and seemingly every other combination imaginable.

The University of Washington:

It’s been estimated that about 7.1 million tons (64 teragrams) of aerosols – dust, pollutants and other atmospheric particles, including microorganisms – cross the Pacific each year. The aerosols are carried by wind storms into the upper reaches of the troposphere. The troposphere, the layer of air closest to earth up to about 11 miles (18 kilometers), is where almost all our weather occurs.

Riding the storms, the microbes can cross the Pacific Ocean in just over a week. “When the wind blows,” says Scharf, the population of Asiatic microbes in the continental U.S. climbs. “This means that there is real mixing of species going on, a microbial pollution that may have consequences for all manner of things, including local ecosystem function and even disease.”

More from Smithsonian.com:
Germophobes Take Note: Your Pillowcase Is As Dirty As Your Toilet
Bacterial Life Abounds in Antarctic Lake, Cut Off From the World for 2,800 Years

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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