Public Release: 

EARTH: Lofted by hurricanes, bacteria live the high life

American Geosciences Institute

Alexandria, VA - With cold temperatures, low humidity and high levels of ultraviolet radiation, conditions 10 kilometers above Earth's surface may seem inhospitable. But, next time you're flying consider this: The air outside your airplane window may be filled with microscopic life that affects everything from weather and climate to the distribution of pathogens around the planet.

While studying hurricanes during NASA-sponsored research flights, scientists stumbled upon populations of airborne bacteria. Microscopic analyses revealed that each cubic meter of air collected contained an average of about 150,000 cells - mostly bacteria with a few fungal cells mixed in. The team found that the bacterial assemblage in each sample tended to reflect the recent history of the air mass from which it was collected. For instance, if the hurricane was predominantly over the ocean, then the sample contained mostly oceanic bacteria. However, the exact mechanics of how the bacteria are transported to the upper atmosphere remain unclear.

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Read this article and more in the May issue of EARTH Magazine! Check out the Mars Monthly; learn how landslides may be essential for salmon habitats; and discover how Rocky Mountain hot springs may vent mantle gases.


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The American Geosciences Institute is a nonprofit federation of geoscientific and professional associations that represents more than 250,000 geologists, geophysicists and other earth scientists. Founded in 1948, AGI provides information services to geoscientists, serves as a voice of shared interests in the profession, plays a major role in strengthening geoscience education, and strives to increase public awareness of the vital role the geosciences play in society's use of resources, resiliency to natural hazards, and interaction with the environment.

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