DISCOVERIES | 07.05.16

Invisible Nature: Life in the Clouds

Scientists are looking skyward to explore one of biology’s last frontiers, and discovering a rich diversity of microbial life high above our heads.



How high does Earth's biosphere extend? Researchers have found life—in the form of microbes—as far as 32 kilometers (20 miles) into the atmosphere, capable of riding air currents around the globe. This animated short documentary explores the little-studied ecosystems high above our heads. At the outermost edge is the stratosphere, an extreme place to live by any stretch. Cold and dry, with almost no shield from radiation, the stratosphere is not unlike the surface of Mars, scientists say—and yet some organisms are able to withstand its harsh conditions. A bit closer to Earth's surface is the troposphere, where some high-flying microbes find respite in the clouds—oases in an aerial desert. Why should we care about these tiny life forms miles above our heads? New research is beginning to reveal that some of these tropospheric residents influence the weather patterns we experience far below.


ABOUT THE contributors

Annette Heist is a science writer, radio producer, and a registered nurse working in behavioral health. Ruth Lichtman is a multi-disciplinary visual artist and filmmaker whose work has been featured on

The New York Times, The Atlantic, Aeon

, and

The Huffington Post

. Flora Lichtman is a science journalist who has worked for “Bill Nye Saves the World” on Netflix,

The New York Times

, and

Science Friday

. She hosts a podcast called Every Little Thing.

Flora Lichtman




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