Ukranian scientists stationed at the Vernadsky Research Base on Galindez Island had quite the surprise walking outside earlier this week. The snow around the Antarctic base had turned from white to shades of pink and red. But don’t worry, no penguins were harmed or responsible for the change of color.
The culprit behind the coloration is Chlamydomonas nivalis, a red algae that is typically found in ice and snow on mountain ranges as well as at the poles. Ukraine's Ministry of Education and Science explained the phenomenon in a Facebook post, describing the snow as the color of "raspberry jam".
It may look delicious, but it's not a good sign.
These tiny organisms have found their niche in extremely cold climates. During the winter months, they are dormant, waiting for the ice and snow to thaw. When the environment warms up, they blossom and replicate into their surroundings. The algae change color from green to orange to red during its life cycle, with blooms particularly intense during long stretches of fair temperatures.
The weather has been unusually warm in Antarctica this season. The hottest-ever recorded temperature in the southernmost continent was set early this month with an incredible 18.3°C (64.9°F) at the Argentinian research base Esperanza, 405 kilometers (252 miles) from Vernadsky Research Base.
Large algae blooms such as these have a deleterious effect on the ice and the melting of glaciers in many geographical locations. Ice being white is really good at reflecting light away, reducing the amount of heat the glacier absorbs. Since the algae is darker in coloration, it reflects less sunlight and therefore results in the glaciers melting faster.
As discussed in a Nature Communications study from a few years back, algae can reduce the albedo of snow (its reflectivity) by up to 13 percent. Given that warmer temperatures across the globe create earlier and longer blooms for the algae, there is a vicious circle between the tiny organisms, climate change, and the melting of glaciers across the world.