by Dr Stefanie Lutz
The enthusiastic skiers or snow hikers among you may have already experienced the red snow phenomenon, which is caused by tiny microorganisms – the snow algae. Often termed ‘watermelon snow’ because of its colour and scent, I would not recommend eating it though. All the algae need to thrive is sunlight and liquid water. That’s why they form massive blooms in the warm months in spring and summer. But too much sun is not good for them either. They produce their own ‘sunscreen’ in the form of red pigments (the so called carotenoids), that gives them their red colouration.
Red snow looks very pretty, but why should we care about these tiny organisms? Well, even the smallest organisms can have a large impact. The red coloration darkens snow and glacial surfaces. This decreases their so called albedo. The albedo determines how much sunlight is reflected back from a surface. White snow reflects more sunlight, whereas the darker red snow reflects less. Therefore more heat is retained, which causes more melting. It is the same effect that makes people choose white clothing in places with high sun exposure such as deserts. Black clothing would make the sun even more unbearable.
I was really lucky to work on this topic during my PhD at the University of Leeds. Together with my supervisor Liane G. Benning, we collected 40 samples from various places in the Arctic, ranging from Greenland to Iceland, Svalbard and Northern Sweden. We found that these algal communities are very similar in all studied places and over one melt season they reduce the albedo by an additional 13%. Calculating how much this equates in additional melting is not easy and will be addressed in our ongoing work.
Our findings have been published in Nature Communications. Since the paper was published I have been approached by a many worried journalists who aske me what we should do against these dreadful algae. Well, we cannot and should not do anything against them. Snow algae are actually very important members of the natural food chain. Like plants, they do photosynthesis, and in doing so they fix atmospheric CO2 and transform it into organic carbon that can be used by other organisms. However, there is one thing that is worrying – and that is global warming, which may cause a ‘runaway effect’. Snow algae need liquid water to bloom, with rising temperatures more melting will increase the extent of the snow algae, which will further darken the glacial surfaces, causing more melting, and so on. So the only thing we can and should do is to reduce human-induced climate change.
We’ve just come back from gathering samples from the Greenland Ice Sheet, where a record-breaking ice melting enderway. As part of a big international, UK led team, we will further investigate the extent of these algae and their contribution to melting. At the moment climate models don’t consider the effect of algae on snow and ice melt, it is time to change that!
Dr Stefanie Lutz is a postdoctoral research associate at the GFZ Helholtz centre in Potsdam, Germany.