Can Bird Poop Make Clouds?


Do you see a fluffy white cloud in the sky? Depending where you are, it could be made
of bird poop—well…kind of. I’m Anna and this is Gross Science. To understand how bird poop could make clouds,
you first need to know a little something about how clouds form. So, clouds form when water evaporates from
ocean, lakes, and other reservoirs, or is released from plants in a process called transpiration. This water is in a gaseous form, called water
vapor, and it floats up into the atmosphere. Now, the vapor could just hang out in the
air unseen. But in order to become a cloud, the water
has to cool and attach itself to something we call a “condensation nucleus.” Dust particles, ice crystals, specks of pollution,
and even fungal spores can all serve as “condensation nuclei.” Water molecules glom onto them, becoming water
droplets—and when this is repeated over and over again, we can see these droplets
in the form of clouds. So, what does this have to do with bird poop? Well, bird poop is really rich in nitrogen. And we’ve known this for years. Beginning centuries ago, people would actually
mine guano—which is a fancy term for the accumulated poop or seabirds or bats—and
they’d use it as fertilizer, because nitrogen helps plants grow. But, humans aren’t the only creatures with
an affection for guano. Bacteria love it, too. Bacteria chow down on the guano, and release
another nitrogen-based molecule, called ammonia, as a waste product. And given that tens of millions of seabirds
spend their summers in the Arctic, bacteria there produce a ton of ammonia—about 40,000
metric tons each year, to be exact. When the ammonia drifts up into the atmosphere,
it reacts with sulfuric acid and water. And when other molecules in the air latch
on it becomes a condensation nucleus—adding to the total number of these guys floating
around above the Arctic. Now, you know how clouds can either look bright
or dark? Well, that’s due to the size and number
of droplets they’re made of. Here are two clouds, each in an environment
with the same amount of water vapor in the atmosphere. The bright one is made of a large number of
small droplets, while the dark one is made of a small number of large droplets. In the bright cloud, the water’s just divided
among more condensation nuclei. Now, there’s still a lot we don’t understand
about how clouds affect climate, but we do know that bright clouds help reflect sunlight
away from Earth, which means that they can have a cooling effect on our planet. And that means that all the additional droplets
contributed by the ammonia from Arctic bird poop could be helping to keep our planet a
little bit cooler. The effects are likely not huge. But as Greg Wentworth, a scientist involved
with the study, told me, the birds make a “relatively small, yet smelly, contribution.” For me, this study brings home the importance
of basic research. Both on clouds, but also on seabird biology. Now that that we know bird poop may be part
of our climate story, it’s more important than ever for us to study and protect them. So, all you future scientists out there—I
hope you’re feeling inspired. And maybe just a little grossed out. Ew.

71 thoughts on “Can Bird Poop Make Clouds?

  1. Hi Anna,thank you for the interesting video as is typical of your videos I have learned something new today.I wonder how much meteor created dust contributes towards cloud formation and the burning of hydrocarbons as well.You are as the one fellow said so close to 100k,I just know you will be there very soon.All the best and keep up your good work! Bird poop, Ew!!!

  2. Does the amount of ammonia in the air have any adverse health effects which would be noticeable (not that I plan on going to the Arctic anytime soon)?

  3. Wow, great job with this! I'm one of the authors on the Nature Communication paper with Greg Wentworth. You made all aspects of the bird-ammonia-particle-cloud-climate system very clear! That is not easy! I'm really impressed, and thank you!

  4. Our ancestors harvested bird feces?! That explains why these modern birds like to poo my car. They think that I'm interested in their feces.

  5. I never knew all this! Super cool 🙂

    ps. one of the clouds you have in the background looks like it has a happy face. Very cute.

  6. Mix bird poop, or even better bat guano with finely crushed fruit loops, light it on fire… And you'll have instant clouds… Of smoke!

  7. Quite interesting. Never really expected bird poop to be part of something like this. I just assumed it and other fesses help plants by treating the soil or something (Computer science guy, so I know more about 1s and 0s than this stuff lol). Pretty cool though

  8. Hello! Idk if you take suggestions, but can you do another video on other carnivorous plants the last one really interested me.

  9. Yeh, Hi I've got really bad itching in my penile region lately. I shaved my pubes incase it was crabs, but idk what to do. Can you do your gross magic and help me out?

  10. Kinda of an unrelated question here. What is dog poo made of? It's probably nitrogen poor, right? Every time I'm collecting my dogs poo I wonder if I could do something useful with it, instead of just throwing it away.

    Thanks!

  11. My son would like to know what atoms are in bird poo? By the way he is a big fan of your channel. When I ask him if he wants to watch a new "Gross Science" video, he stops what he is doing straight away to come see it.

  12. Gosto muito do seu canal, adoro o conteúdo, mas sinto que não vai entender meu comentário porque tá em português, então… Thanks, your channel is very interesting, I love your videos <3 And I really feel inspired by them :B /sorry if I wrote something wrong/

  13. This means that the XIX method of crushing thousands of sea birds to turn them into oil looks even more sinister…

  14. Everything here's so gross yet I keep coming back here, binge watch, and swear I would never come here again, and come back, and binge watch, and the addiction cycle continues…

    Can you talk a little about human's fondness of gross stuff please???

  15. there goes my childhood, I guess that's why I felt sick after eating raindrops, they're made out of bird crap, dust, ice. pollution, and fungal spore. How have I not died yet?

  16. Im new and i dont know wether i should subscribe or not cause these facts are gross but interesting. Like if i should subscribe

  17. don't forget because of the rich minerals in bird poop it was actually used to create explosives.
    If Transfomers G1 taught me anything, it was this.

  18. This is twitching my brain..
    So, I’m confused about the bacteria.

    Bacteria comes from your body, especially the armpits and warm places, like your (I’m not gonna say it cuz it’s gross and I’m kinda.. eh.)
    So, can you realease your bacteria with poop or..?
    Yeah I’ve been looking at too much brains on.

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