Story at a glance

  • Climate change is rapidly melting snow in parts of Antarctica.
  • Researchers have discovered that algae is blooming on the surface of snow melt.
  • The microscopic organisms are a sign of a changing ecosystem.

It is well-documented that climate change is rapidly melting ice sheets. But what is left in their place? 

New research using remote sensing shows that green snow algae is blooming on the surface of melting ice in parts of Antarctica. 


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Snow algae is a species of green algae that thrive in freezing water and are common in alpine and coastal polar regions, including the Sierra Nevada in California. As the Antarctic Peninsula warms up by more than 34 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius), the species has grown as well –– now spanning about three-fourths of a square mile (or 1.95 square km) and equating to a carbon sink of about 479 tonnes a year. Using images from the European Space Agency's Sentinel 2 satellite taken between 2017 and 2019, researchers identified 1,679 separate blooms of green algae. 


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“It’s a community. This could potentially form new habitats. It’s the beginning of a new ecosystem,” Matt Davey of Cambridge University, one of the scientists who led the study, told the Guardian.

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More than half of the algae blooms are on small, low-lying islands with no high ground to expand to, the study said, meaning that much of it is likely to disappear as the continent grows even warmer. But at the same time, algae blooms could expand onto larger landmasses. Currently, 60 percent of blooms are less than 3 miles (or 5 km) from a penguin colony, and if the snow algae expands, it’s likely to get even closer to other bird or seal colonies. 

“I think we will get more large blooms in the future. Before we know whether this has a significant impact on carbon budgets or bio albedo, we need to run the numbers,” Andrew Gray, the lead author of the study, told the Guardian. 

Snow algae play a key role in the continent's carbon cycle, capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. Researchers told Science Daily that they estimate the amount of carbon held in these blooms are equal to the amount emitted by about 875,000 car trips in the United Kingdom. 


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Published on May 20, 2020