“Green snow” spreads in coastal Antarctica

The first ever large-scale map of microscopic algae on the surface of snow along the Antarctic Peninsula coast has been published. Results indicate that this so-called green snow is likely to spread as global temperatures increase.

Summer snow cover in Antarctica may be lost. (Image credit: Liam Quinn via Flickr)

The research team, involving researchers from the University of Cambridge and the British Antarctic Survey, combined satellite data with on-the-ground observations over two summers in Antarctica to detect and measure the green snow algae.

Although each individual alga is microscopic in size, when they grow en masse they turn the snow bright green and can be seen from space, explains a statement.

“This is a significant advance in our understanding of land-based life on Antarctica, and how it might change in the coming years as the climate warms,” said Dr Matt Davey in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences, who led the study. “Snow algae are a key component of the continent’s ability to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis.”

A nutritious fertiliser

Blooms of green snow algae are found around the Antarctic coastline, particularly on islands along the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. They grow in ‘warmer’ areas, where average temperatures are just above zero degrees Celsius during the austral summer – the Southern Hemisphere’s summer months of November to February.

The team found that the distribution of green snow algae is also strongly influenced by marine birds and mammals, whose excrement acts as a highly nutritious natural fertiliser to accelerate algal growth. Over 60% of blooms were found within five kilometres of a penguin colony. Algae were also observed growing near the nesting sites of other birds, including skuas, and areas where seals come ashore.

The team used images from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 2 satellite taken between 2017 and 2019, and combined these with measurements they made on the ground in Antarctica at Ryder Bay, Adelaide Island, and the Fildes Peninsula, King George Island.

“We identified 1679 separate blooms of green algae on the snow surface, which together covered an area of 1.9 km2, equating to a carbon sink of around 479 tonnes per year” said Davey. Put into context this is the same amount of carbon emitted by about 875,000 average petrol car journeys in the UK.

Islands set to lose summer snow cover

Almost two thirds of the green algal blooms were on small, low-lying islands with no high ground. As the Antarctic Peninsula warms due to rising global temperatures, these islands may lose their summer snow cover and with it their snow algae. However, in terms of mass, the majority of snow algae is found in a small number of larger blooms in the north of the Peninsula and the South Shetland Islands, in areas where they can spread to higher ground as low-lying snow melts.

Antarctica is the world’s southernmost continent, typically known as a frozen land of snow and ice. But terrestrial life can be abundant, particularly along its coastline, and is responding rapidly to climate changes in the region. Mosses and lichens form the two biggest visible groups of photosynthesising organisms, and have been the most studied to date. This new study has found that microscopic algae also play an important role in Antarctica’s ecosystem and its carbon cycling.

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