An astonishing number of bacteria and viruses are circulating around the Earth’s atmosphere – and falling from the sky every day, new research has found.
The new research from scientists in Canada, Spain, and the U.S. marks the first time scientists have measured the quantity of the viruses that are swept from the Earth’s surface into the free troposphere, that layer of atmosphere beyond Earth’s weather systems but below the stratosphere where jet airplanes fly.
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Scientists at the University of British Columbia say the viruses can be carried in the troposphere thousands of kilometers before falling back to earth.
Study author Curtis Suttle explained: “Every day, more than 800 million viruses are deposited per square meter above the planetary boundary layer–that’s 25 viruses for each person in Canada.”
“Roughly 20 years ago we began finding genetically similar viruses occurring in very different environments around the globe,” Suttle added.
Suttle and colleagues wanted to figure out how much of that material is carried up above the atmospheric boundary layer above 2,500 to 3,000 meters.
At that altitude, particles are subject to longer distances transport unlike particles lower in the atmosphere.
Using sites high in Spain’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, more than 3,400 meters heights, the scientists found billions of viruses and tens of millions of bacteria unloaded per square meter each day. The deposition rates for viruses were nine to 461 times greater than the rates for bacteria.
“Bacteria and viruses are typically deposited back to Earth via rain events and Saharan dust intrusions. However, the rain was less efficient removing viruses from the atmosphere,” said author Isabel Reche from the University of Granada.
The study also found the most of the viruses carried signatures indicating they had been swept up into the air from sea spray. The viruses tend to hitch rides on smaller, lighter, organic particles suspended in air and gas, meaning they can stay aloft in the atmosphere longer.