Snow algae speeds up climate change

Pink snow and ice decorate glaciers across the Arctic, owing their stunning hue to the presence of red pigmented snow algae – but the phenomenon is far more sombre than its appearance suggests.

New research in the Pan-European Arctic has found that these algal blooms may play a previously-underestimated role in the melting of the glaciers.

Pink snow owes its stunning hue to red pigmented snow algae – but the phenomenon is far more sombre than its appearance suggests. These blooms darken icy surfaces, reducing the glaciers’ ability to reflect sunlight and causing them to soak up heat

Over the course of one melting season, the researchers say the red-pigmented snow algal blooms can lead to a 13 percent reduction of albedo, and in turn, cause higher melt rates.

The term ‘albedo’ describes the ability of a surface to reflect sunlight; white surfaces, like those covered in ice and snow, have high albedo.

In a new study published to the journal Nature Communications, researchers describe the phenomenon which thrives during the warm months in the Arctic.

The growth of these blooms heavily depends on the availability of liquid water and sunlight, and in the Arctic and the mountains, thin layers of meltwater form on ice and snow during the late spring and summer.

Researchers set out to investigate the biodiversity of so algae and other microbial communities in the Pan-European Arctic. They collected roughly 40 samples from 21 glaciers across the region, including Greenland, Iceland, Svalbard, and Sweden.

While bacteria collected from the sites was high in biodiversity, the patterns for snow algal communities were uniform in diversity and pigmentation, indicating they have the same effects on albedo.

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