Life in Clouds

Some people walk around with their heads in the clouds, but what about life on the insides of clouds?

With a question that stumped a lot of experts. A reader wants to know, “Does anything live in clouds?

We talked to scientists — from microbiologists to cloud experts. Every single one said “interesting question” — but no one had a solid answer.

Cumulus clouds

The only life form that there was some agreement on was bacteria. Probably some bacteria do make their way into clouds as cloud condensation nuclei. In other words, they become the tiny suspended particles that serve as the collection points for water vapor — the seeds of cloud-drops and raindrops. These cloud condensation nuclei can be windblown dust, sea-salt, exhaust from combustion – and probably a small fraction are also bacteria.

But it’s probably not accurate to say that bacteria live in clouds. Instead, they just survive their time there. The lifetime of a cumulous cloud is about half an hour. And since air is continuously passing through clouds, the lifetime of a single cloud droplet is much less than that. The bacteria in clouds probably don’t grow or reproduce until they come back in contact with a food source. So they either dry up and die — or fall back to Earth, enclosed inside a drop of rain.

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