Antarctica’s snow is gradually turning green as warming temperatures due to climate change are helping the formation and spread of “green snow”, first map of the algae blooms on the southernmost continent has shown.
While the presence of algae in Antarctica was noted by long-ago expeditions, such as the one undertaken by British explorer Ernest Shackleton, its full extent was unknown.
Now, using data collected over two years by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 2 satellite, together with on-the-ground observations, a research team from the University of Cambridge and the British Antarctic Survey have recently created the first map of the algae blooms on the Antarctic Peninsula coast.
Scientists have created the first large-scale map of microscopic algae on the Antarctic Peninsula as they bloom across the surface of the melting snow, tinting the surface green and potentially creating a source of nutrition for other species.
The British team behind the research believe these blooms will expand their range in future because global heating is creating more of the slushy conditions they need to thrive.
Biologists from the University of Cambridge and the British Antarctic Survey spent six years detecting and measuring the green snow algae using a combination of satellite data and ground observation.
The result is the first large-scale algae map of the peninsular, which will be used as a baseline to assess the speed at which the white continent is turning green due to the climate crisis and potentially offering sustenance to other species, The Guardian reported.
They have already found the algae have formed close bonds with tiny fungal spores and bacteria. “It’s a community. This could potentially form new habitats. In some place, it would be the beginning of a new ecosystem,” said Matt Davey of Cambridge University, one of the scientists who led the study.
He described the algae map as a missing piece of the carbon cycle jigsaw in the Antarctic.
It identifies 1,679 separate blooms of green snow algae, which together covered an area of 1.9 sq km, equating to a carbon sink of about 479 tonnes a year.
This is said to be the equivalent to the emissions of about 875,000 car journeys in the UK, though in global terms, it is too small to make much of a difference to the planet’s carbon budget.
Mosses and lichens are considered the dominant photosynthetic organisms in Antarctica - but the newly mapped algal blooms are a key component in the continent’s ability to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, scientists say.
Blooms of snow algae in Antarctica were first described by expeditions in the 1950s and 1960s.
They host a diverse range of algal species and are found around the Antarctic coastline, particularly on islands along the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.
And they grow in warmer areas, where average temperatures are just above zero degrees Celsius during the austral summer (November to February).
Many scientists believe a warmer climate because of rising temperatures would melt more Antarctic snow- perhaps melting the peninsula’s snow completely and destroying some of the algae’s habitat.
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