Meanwhile, Antarctica's snow is turning green

Penguin poop and climate change are fuelling the spread of 'snow algae' down the Antarctic Peninsula

Some of the areas on the Antarctic Peninsula where the snow is turning green.

Image: Nature Communications, CC BY 4.0
  • On the Antarctic Peninsula, so-called snow algae are turning the snow green.
  • The algae thrive on temperatures just above freezing, which are increasingly common.
  • Antarctica's green snow could lay the groundwork for a whole new ecosystem.


First ever map

A photograph showing a snow algae bloom dominated by green algae starting to melt out from beneath seasonal snow cover to sit exposed upon underlying multiyear ne\u0301 ve\u0301 /firn. 26 January 2018, Anchorage Island (67.6\u00b0S). Bloom shown was approximately 50\u2009m\u2009\u00d7\u2009100\u2009m.

Snow algae bloom, Anchorage Island, 26 January 2018.

Image: Nature Communications, CC BY 4.0

With COVID-19's stranglehold on the news cycle, it's enough to wax nostalgic about the other varieties of existential dread that used to stalk our screens. But don't worry – there's still plenty to worry about. Global warming, for example, is still very much a going concern. In Antarctica, it's been turning the snow green. And no, that's not a good thing.

It's all happening on and near the Antarctic Peninsula, the bit of the Frozen Continent that juts out furthest north. It's one of the fastest-warming places on Earth. By some accounts, average annual temperatures have increased by almost 3°C (5.4°F) since the start of the Industrial Revolution (c. 1800).

The Peninsula is where, earlier this year, Antarctica's temperature topped 20°C for the first time on record. On 9 February 2020, Brazilian scientists logged 20.75°C (69.35°F) at Seymour Island, near the Peninsula's northern tip. Just three days earlier, the Argentinian research station at Esperanza, on the Peninsula itself, had measured 18.30°C (64.94°F), a new record for Antarctica's mainland.

Those warmer temperatures are not without consequences. Certainly the most spectacular one are the giant icebergs the size of small countries that occasionally calve off from the local ice shelves (see #849). Less dramatically, they've also led to an increase in microscopic algae that are coloring large swathes of snow green, both on the Peninsula itself and on neighboring islands.

These 'snow algae' are sometimes also known as 'watermelon snow', because they can produce shades of pink, red or green. The cause is a species of green algae that sometimes contains a secondary red pigment. Unlike other freshwater algae, it is cryophilic, which means that it thrives in near-freezing conditions.

This week sees the publication in the journal Nature Communications of the first ever large-scale map of the Peninsula's snow algae. Single-cell organisms they may be, but they proliferate to such an extent that the patches of snow and ice they turn a vivid green can be observed from space.

1,679 separate 'blooms' 

a Overview of the locations of individual blooms of green-dominant snow algae identified across the Antarctic Peninsula using modelled data from satellite imagery and ground data (circles; n\u2009=\u20091679). Circle colour scale represents the mean cell density (cells\u2009ml\u22121) of each bloom. Red triangles indicate the location of ground validation sites (n\u2009=\u200927). Cyan triangles show the location of our Adelaide Island and King George Island field sites. b RGB Sentinel 2A image of green snow algae blooms at one of our validation sites, Anchorage Island (February, 2020). c Output of IB4 (Eq. (1)), where coloured pixels are those not masked by Eq. (3). Pixel values are converted to cell density (cells\u2009ml\u22121) using Eq. (2) with the colour scale showing the resultant cell density for each pixel identified as containing green snow algae.

On the left: overview of the locations of individual blooms (red triangles indicate ground validation sites, cyan ones indicate field validation sites). Top right: satellite image from a validation site on Anchorage Island. Bottom right: exact location of green snow algae sites.

Image: Nature Communications, CC BY 4.0

The team who produced this map actually did use data from the European Space Agency's Sentinel 2 constellation of satellites, adding field data collected on Adelaide Island (2017/18) and Fildes and King George Islands (2018/19).

Prepared over a six-year period by biologists from Cambridge University in collaboration with the British Antarctic Survey, the map identifies 1,679 separate 'blooms' of the snow algae.

The largest bloom they found, on Robert Island in the South Shetland Islands, was 145,000 m2 (almost 36 acres). The total area covered by the green snow was 1.9 km2 (about 0.75 sq. mi). For comparison: Other vegetation on the entire peninsular area covers about 8.5 km2 (3.3 sq. mi).

For the algae to thrive, the conditions need to be just right: water needs to be just above freezing point to give the snow the right degree of slushiness. And that's happening with increasing frequency on the Peninsula during the Antarctic summer, from November to February.

Like other plants, the green algae use photosynthesis to grow. This means they act as a carbon sink. The researchers estimate that the algae they observed remove about 479 tons of atmospheric CO2 per year. That equates to about 875,000 average UK car journeys, or 486 flights between London and New York.

That's not counting the carbon stored by the red snow algae, which were not included in the study. The red algae are estimated to cover an area at least half of the green snow algae, and to be less dense.

About two-thirds of the algal blooms studied occurred on the area's islands, which have been even more affected by regional temperature rises than the Peninsula itself.

The blooms also correlate to the local wildlife - in particular to their poop, which serves as fertiliser for the algae. Researchers found half of all blooms occurred within 100 m (120 yards) of the sea, almost two-thirds were within 5 km (3.1 miles) of a penguin colony. Others were near other birds' nesting sites, and where seals come ashore.

Essential excrement

\u200bA colony of Ad\u00e9lie penguins on Paulet Island, just off the Antarctic Peninsula.

A colony of Adélie penguins on Paulet Island, just off the Antarctic Peninsula.

Image: Jens Bludau, CC BY-SA 3.0

This suggests that the excrement of the local marine fauna provides essential hotspots of fertiliser like nitrogen and phosphate, in what is otherwise a fairly barren environment. The researchers suggest the algae in their turn could become nutrients for other species, and thus be the building block for a whole new ecosystem on the Peninsula. There is some evidence the algae are already cohabiting with fungal spores and bacteria.

'Green snow' currently occurs from around 62.2° south (at Bellingshausen Station, on the South Shetland Islands) to 68.1° south (at San Martin Station, on Faure Island). As regional warming continues, the snow algae phenomenon is predicted to increase. Some of the islands where it now occurs may lose summer snow cover, thus becoming unsuitable for snow algae; but the algae are likely to spread to areas further south where they are as yet rare or absent.

The spread of snow algae itself will act as an accelerant for regional warming: while white snow reflects around 80% of the sun's rays, green snow reflects only around 45%. This reduction of the albedo effect increases heat absorption, adding to the chance of the snow melting.

If no effort is made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, scientists predict global melting of snow and ice reserves could push up sea levels by up to 1.1 m (3.6 ft) by the end of the century. If global warming continues unabated and Antarctica's vast stores of snow and ice – about 70% of the world's fresh water – were all to melt, sea levels could rise by up to 60 m (almost 200 ft).

That may be many centuries away. Meanwhile, the snow algae map will help monitor the speed at which Antarctica is turning green by serving as a baseline for the impact of climate change on the Earth's southernmost continent.


For the entire article: 'Remote sensing reveals Antarctic green snow algae as important terrestrial carbon sink' in Nature Communications.

Strange Maps #1030

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Stories are at the heart of learning, writes Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Executive Director for the Global Oneness Project. They have always challenged us to think beyond ourselves, expanding our experience and revealing deep truths.
  • Vaughan-Lee explains 6 ways that storytelling can foster empathy and deliver powerful learning experiences.
  • Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
Keep reading Show less

Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

Keep reading Show less

The history of using the Insurrection Act against Americans

Numerous U.S. Presidents invoked the Insurrection Act to to quell race and labor riots.

The army during riots in Washington, DC, after the assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., April 1968.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • U.S. Presidents have invoked the Insurrection Act on numerous occasions.
  • The controversial law gives the President some power to bring in troops to police the American people.
  • The Act has been used mainly to restore order following race and labor riots.
Keep reading Show less

Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

Scroll down to load more…