Green Snow in Antarctica: Here's Why It's Happening
Thu, February 2, 2023

Green Snow in Antarctica: Here's Why It's Happening


The Antarctic Peninsula, where the potentially record-breaking February temperatures were logged, is one of the fastest-warming regions on the planet. Even Antarctica’s coldest region, East Antarctica, are also suffering from the worst impacts of climate change. The region had been long thought to be untouched by warming. However, reports revealed that the glaciers and ice shelves in this frigid region are showing signs of melting.

Scientists are seeing worrying signs of ice loss in East Antarctica. A 2019 study, for instance, showed that the region is shrinking and is already responsible for 20% of the continent’s ice loss. In satellite images, depictions of the fast-moving ice light up in red, while glaciers are starting to move more quickly. The Totten Glacier alone contains enough ice to raise global sea levels by 12.6 feet. “That’s the big red bullseye,” Ted Scambos, a glaciologist at Colorado’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, said.

If anything, these reports show how climate change and global warming are bringing extreme conditions to Antarctica, endangering all species that live there.



Antarctica is Melting Six Times Faster Than in the 1990s

The Fifth Assessment Report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2014 predicted that global sea levels would rise 28 inches (71 centimeters) by 2100. The Ice Sheet Mass Balance Intercomparison Exercise team's studies showed that ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland peaked at 552 billion tons per year in 2010 and averaged 475 billion tons per year for the remainder of the decade. NASA believes that this loss is due to last year’s Arctic heatwave, which means 2019 will likely set a new record for polar ice sheet loss.

While these findings are alarming, they are not at all surprising. For many decades, scientists have warned us of the impacts of ice loss in Antarctica. A recent study revealed that the region is losing ice six times faster than they were in the 1990s. There’s a possibility that it will be on track to match the "worst-case" scenario of the IPCC of an extra 6.7 inches (17 centimeters) of sea-level rise by 2100 if the current melting trend continues.

Aside from Antarctica, Greenland’s ice is also melting at the same rate. Together, the two regions lost 81 billion tons per year in the 1990s, compared with 475 billion tons of ice per year in the 2010s—a sixfold increase. As a result, global sea levels increased by 0.7 inches (17.8 millimeters). Both regions are responsible for a third of all sea-level rise, the researchers said. Of this, 60% resulted from Greenland's ice loss, and 40% resulted from Antarctica's.

"Satellite observations of polar ice are essential for monitoring and predicting how climate change could affect ice losses and sea-level rise. While computer simulations allow us to make projections from climate change scenarios, the satellite measurements provide prima facie, rather irrefutable, evidence,” Erik Ivins from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California said.



Antarctica’s Snow is Turning Green

It’s well-reported how climate change has caused the rapid melting of ice in Antarctica. However, its impacts are causing another phenomenon in the region: some snow isn't white — it's green. While small amounts of the green snow have been visible for years, it’s starting to spread across the continent because of climate change.

A recent study published in the journal Nature Communications revealed that the green glow in the snow of Antarctica is caused by a microscopic alga blooming on the surface of the snow. According to EcoWatch, a leading environmental news site engaging millions of concerned individuals every month, the researchers said that the algae spread as global temperature increases, which creates more of the slushy conditions that the algae need in order to thrive.

"As Antarctica warms, we predict the overall mass of snow algae will increase, as the spread to higher ground will significantly outweigh the loss of small island patches of algae," Dr. Andrew Gray, lead author from the University of Cambridge, said in a statement.

The researchers created the first large-scale map of the green algae and predicted the future spread of the bizarre snow using satellite data and fieldwork observations. The data were gathered between 2017 and 2019, combined with on-the-ground measurements over two summers in Antarctica. These have allowed scientists to map the microscopic algae as they bloomed across the snow of the Antarctic Peninsula.

The data were also based on images collected by the European Space Agency satellites with measurements from Antarctica's Ryder Bay, Adelaide Island, the Fildes Peninsula, and King George Island. The findings showed that the algae have already formed close bonds with tiny fungal spores and bacteria. “It’s a community. This could potentially form new habitats. In someplace, it would be the beginning of a new ecosystem,” Matt Davey, one of the scientists who led the study, said.

According to The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, the algae map has identified 1,679 separate blooms of green snow algae, which together covered an area of 1.9 sq km. This equates to a carbon sink of about 479 tons a year. It also showed that nearly two-thirds of the green algal blooms were found on small, low-lying islands around the peninsula. These areas have experienced some of the most intense heating in the world. 

“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,” Gray said.

The researchers also found out that the distribution of green snow algae is strongly influenced by marine birds and mammals. About 60% of blooms were found near penguin colonies, while others were found near birds' nesting sites. "This is a significant advance in our understanding of land-based life on Antarctica, and how it might change in the coming years as the climate warms," Davey said.

Unfortunately, it’s still unclear how the spreading algae will affect the planet. While it plays an integral role in cycling nutrients and pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, it also darkens snow and absorbs more heat from the sun.