Climate change turns parts of Antarctica green: ‘Beginning of a new ecosystem’

Clay Curtis
May 22, 2020

As bird - particularly penguin - populations are affected by warming temperatures, "the snow algae could lose sources of nutrients to grow", he said.

While warming temperatures are likely to encourage larger green snow algae blooms across most of the Antarctic, climate change is likely to leave at least some low-lying islands without summertime snow cover, robbing the islands of their green snow blooms. Because algal blooms act as a carbon sink, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via photosynthesis, understanding its response to climate change is important.

More of Antarctica is set to be covered in "green snow" as global temperatures increase, researchers have said.

While more algae means more Carbon dioxide is absorbed, the plants could have a small but adverse impact on local albedo - how much of the Sun's heat is reflected back from Earth's surface.

Scientists at the University of Cambridge and the British Antarctic Survey have been researching algae blooming across melting snow on the Antarctic peninsula.

At present, certain regions of Antarctica have such dense algae concentration that the bright green-appearing snow can even be viewed from space.

Researchers created their map using images captured between 2017 and 2019 by the European Space Agency's Sentinel 2 satellite. This large-scale map of the algae will be used to assess the speed at which Antarctica is turning green and maybe providing sustenance to other species.

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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.

In addition to the correlation between green snow blooms and warmer temperatures, researchers also found a link between coastal algae blooms and the presence of marine birds and mammals - bird excrement is rich in nutrients that fuel algae growth.

Scientists identified 1,679 separate blooms of green algae on the snow surface, covering an area of 1.9 km2 - which equates to a carbon sink of around 479 tons per year. In terms of mass though, the majority of the algae is found in larger blooms where they can spread to higher ground as low-lying snow melts.

Nearly two thirds of the algal blooms were found on low-lying islands and the researchers predict that rising temperatures may see such islands become covered in algae.

"Before we know whether this has a significant impact on carbon budgets or bio albedo, we need to run the numbers", Andrew Gray from Cambridge University, the lead author of the paper, said.

In the near future, the researchers intend to measure red and orange algae forms on the continent as well, and track their growth to understand how the continent may be transforming.

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