Pink Snow in the Italian Alps Means Trouble, Scientists Say
In a troubling sign for the future of the Italian Alps, the snow and ice in a glacier is turning pink due to the growth of snow-melting algae, according to scientists studying the pink ice phenomenon, as CNN reported.
The algae will make the snow melt faster. The salmon-hue that has tinged the snow is from algae that carry carotenoid pigment, which reflects the distinctive color. While most algae thrive in warm freshwaters, these are known as cryophilic, meaning they thrive in colder temperatures, where they create the "watermelon snow" effect, according to Salon.
The concern is that the algal bloom on the snow will accelerate the effects of the climate crisis. As Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported the plant, known as Ancylonema nordenskioeldii, is often found in Greenland's so-called Dark Zone, where the ice is also melting.
Normally ice reflects more than 80 percent of the sun's radiation back into the atmosphere, but as algae appear, they darken the ice so that it absorbs the heat and melts more quickly, according to AFP.
"Everything that darkens the snow causes it to melt because it accelerates the absorption of radiation," said Biagio Di Mauro of Italy's National Research Council to AFP. "We are trying to quantify the effect of other phenomena besides the human one on the overheating of the Earth." He noted that the presence of tourists could also have an effect in weakening the snow.
Di Mauro told CNN that the spring and summer had very little snowfall high in the Alps, which has seen higher than average temperatures. "This creates the perfect environment for the algae to grow," he added.
Di Mauro emphasized that the algal bloom is particularly bad news for the glaciers, which may see a rapid melting. That would be in line with glaciers around the world that are starting to fade away as global heating continues to push up atmospheric temperatures.
"A classic reminder of how uncertainty is not our friend," said Dr. Michael E. Mann, a distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University, to Salon by email. "In this case, we're seeing an amplifying feedback wherein biological darkening (due to Algae growing on the surface of melting ice), leads to more solar absorption by the ice and even faster melting. We call this a 'positive feedback' but it is anything but positive. It reflects a process which is leading to faster melting of the glaciers than our simple models predict."
As CNN noted, Di Mauro has come across cold temperature algae before. He has previously studied the Morteratsch glacier in Switzerland, where an algae called Ancylonema nordenskioeldii has turned the ice purple.
Ken Caldeira, an atmospheric scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science's Department of Global Ecology, told Salon that "photosynthetic organisms are designed to absorb sunlight. Some small fraction of the energy in sunlight goes into making carbohydrates but most of it goes into heating the organism and its local environment. If that organism is living in snow, the snow is likely to melt."
This algae has also been found in southwestern Greenland as well in as the Andes and Himalayas. Globally, glaciers are melting. A March study found an Antarctic glacier had retreated three miles and can cause five feet of sea level rise if it melts completely. A 2019 study found that Himalayan glacier melt has doubled since 2000. Additionally, conservationists and scientists have held funerals for glaciers in Iceland and the Swiss Alps.
The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.
"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."
The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.
They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.
They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.
But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.
"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.
What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.
It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.
To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.
First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.
Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.
University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.
"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."
Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.
"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.
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