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Green Snow Is Spreading in Antarctica Due to the Climate Crisis

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Coastal Antarctica has seen has a curious phenomenon over the last few years. The green snow that hugs parts of its shores has started to spread farther inland. And it's all caused by the climate crisis.


A new study published in the journal Nature Communications on Wednesday found that the green glow in the snow is actually caused by a microscopic algae blooming on the surface of the snow, according to CBS News.

The researchers from the University of Cambridge in the UK and the British Antarctic Survey say the algae will spread as the planet heats up because warming temperatures are creating more of the slushy conditions that the algae need in order to thrive, according to The Guardian.

Where the algae are at their most dense, their bright green shine alters the appearance of the snow and is actually visible from space. The scientists also say that as the algae spreads, it will invite in other species that will feast on it as a potent source of nutrition, as The Guardian reported.

To conduct the study, the researchers looked at satellite data gathered between 2017 and 2019 and combined it with on-the-ground measurements over two summers in Antarctica. That process allowed the scientists to map the microscopic algae as they bloomed across the snow of the Antarctic Peninsula, according to CNN. The data was gleaned from images collected by the European Space Agency satellites with measurements from Antarctica's Ryder Bay, Adelaide Island, the Fildes Peninsula and King George Island.

What is reported is actually a conservative estimate since the data only included green algae. The satellite is only capable of picking up green, which means the data ignored the red and orange algae that accompany it.

"We now have a baseline of where the algal blooms are and we can see whether the blooms will start increasing as the models suggest in the future," said Matt Davey of the University of Cambridge's Department of Plant Sciences to Reuters.

Even though mosses and lichens are the dominant plant species in Antarctica, the new mapping identified 1,679 separate algal blooms that are a key component in the continent's ability to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as Reuters reported.

"The algal blooms in Antarctica are equivalent to about the amount of carbon that's being omitted by 875,000 average UK petrol car journeys," Davey said to Reuters. "That seems a lot but in terms of the global carbon budget, it's insignificant. It does take up carbon from the atmosphere but it won't make any serious dent in the amount of carbon dioxide being put in the atmosphere at the moment."

The green snow appears along the Antarctic coast, which are "warmer" areas. There, the average temperatures reach just above freezing in the summer.

The researchers found that the distribution of green snow algae is strongly influenced by marine birds and mammals, because their excrement serves as an effective fertilizer. Over 60 percent of blooms were found near penguin colonies, and others were found near birds' nesting sites, according to CBS News.

"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 Davey in a press release.

In order to flourish, the algae need a ready supply of water, which they should have an ample amount of as the planet heats up and snow on the Antarctica Peninsula melts.

"As Antarctica warms, we predict the overall mass of snow algae will increase, as the spread to higher ground will significantly outweigh the loss of small island patches of algae," said co-lead author Dr. Andrew Gray, of the University of Cambridge and the University of Edinburgh, as CBS News reported.

And the algae will help more snow melt.

"It's very dark — a green snow algal bloom will reflect about 45 percent of light hitting it whereas fresh snow will reflect about 80 percent of the light hitting it, so it will increase the rate of snow melt in a localized area," said Gray to CNN.

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