Seabird guano contributes to Arctic cloud cover.

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The melting of Arctic ice has many effects on the planet, once of which has been less cloud cover in the Arctic. This creates a vicious cycle, because less cloud cover means that more sunlight gets through to the ice, which makes the ice melt faster.

In order for clouds to form, there need to be particulates in the air so that water vapor in the air can condense on those particles. These particles are known as cloud condensation nuclei, and one compound that works quite well is ammonia. According to a recent study from Colorado State University, ammonia gets into the Arctic atmosphere because of seabird guano.

Arctic seabirds, especially those that live in colonies, create a lot of guano, which, as it breaks down, releases ammonia into the air. That ammonia sometimes collects water droplets and then group together and form clouds.

The researchers used observations and computer modeling to show that migratory seabird colonies have a definite influence on the creation of clouds in the Arctic. They reported that the rate of cloud condensation nuclei creation was much higher in the summer, when the birds were nesting in the region. Their guano fostered cloud formation and allowed sunlight to reflect back to space instead of heating, and melting, the Arctic ice.

“The newly identified and fascinating ecological-atmospheric connection highlights the interconnectedness of the many components of Earth’s climate system,” says Jeff Pierce, an associate professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State and lead author of the study.

With this knowledge, it is possible to consider how we can introduce more ammonia into the Arctic atmosphere, either by shipping guano there or increasing the population of migratory seabirds summering there. It also gives us one more possible tool in our belt with which to address global climate change.