Climate change leading to an increase of green snow in Antarctica

Image Credit YouTube  Cambridge University

Image Credit YouTube Cambridge University

Snow algae were first described during expeditions to Antarctica in the 1950s and 1960s. "Snow algae are a key component of the continent's ability to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis". Credit: Wikimedia Commons. "With the available area for plant colonization on the Peninsula likely to increase by up to threefold due to this warming, understanding how snow algae fit into Antarctica's biosphere and their probable response to warming is critical to understanding the overall impact of climate change on Antarctica's vegetation", the study reads. Temperatures have already increased 1.5ºC compared to pre-industrial levels and this is likely to continue, leading to a wide set of consequences.

The researchers created a map of the algae comprised of satellite data and on-the-ground observations to come up with their findings. "With multiple and often unknown species recorded within patches of green snow algae, and little known about the dispersal mechanisms, life cycles and plasticity of snow algal species, losses from these islands could represent a reduction of terrestrial diversity for the Antarctic Peninsula", they wrote.

A variety of researchers have reported growing algae in the "warmer areas" of the continent, including King George Island, Ryder Bay, Fildes Peninsula and Adelaide Island. Antarctica's snow is gradually turning green and we're all left wondering what it means.

Large areas of green snow can now be seen along the coastline of the Antarctic Peninsula, mostly in warmer areas that have temperatures above zero degrees Celsius in the summer months - which go from November to February.

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This, together, will cover an area of 1.9 sq.km and equals 479 tonnes per year carbon sink.

The team found most blooms were within around three miles of penguin colonies, and that the algal blooms were strongly influenced by marine birds and mammals.

Almost two-thirds of the blooms were on the small, low-lying islands, the researchers noted, but they expect it to spread greatly as temperatures rise. The blooms the researchers mapped can remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as driving a auto a million miles would create. Researchers are now planning similar studies on red and orange algae, although that is proving harder to map from space. They plan further work to measure these other algal blooms, and also to measure the blooms across the whole of Antarctica using a mixture of field work and satellite images. As the peninsula heats up, some of those islands may lose their summer snow, and with it, their snow algae.

While the presence of algae in Antarctica was noted by long-ago expeditions, such as the one undertaken by British explorer Ernest Shackleton, its full extent was unknown.

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