Antarctica snow turns ‘blood red’

Scientists say red coloured snow reflects less sunlight and causes ice to melt faster

Conrad Duncan
Wednesday 26 February 2020 16:00
The natural phenomenon was photographed at the Vernadsky Research Base
The natural phenomenon was photographed at the Vernadsky Research Base

Snow has taken on a sinister-looking blood red colour at a Ukrainian research station due to a type of algae which contributes to climate change.

For several weeks, scientists working at the Vernadsky Research Base in Antarctica have been surrounded by what they call “raspberry snow”.

Images released by Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science on Monday showed the phenomenon, which is caused by microscope snow algae when weather conditions are favourable during Antarctica’s summer months.

The ministry explained that the algae is able to survive the extreme cold temperatures during the Antarctic winter and begins to sprout when warmer temperatures arrive in the summer (between October and February).

The algae’s cells have a red carotene layer which protects it from ultraviolet radiation and produces red spots in the snow like “raspberry jam”, the ministry said.

Such snow also contributes to climate change due to its darker colour, a Facebook post by the ministry added.

“Because of the red-crimson color, the snow reflects less sunlight and melts faster,” the post said.

“As a consequence, it produces more and more bright algae.”

When colder temperatures return in the winter, the algae, which is officially known as chlamydomonas nivalis, becomes dormant and the red tint disappears.

The natural phenomenon, which is also known as "watermelon snow", can be observed in the Arctic, the Alps and other high mountain ecosystems, as well as in Antarctica, the Ukraine ministry said.

Antarctica has experienced a nine-day heatwave this month and provisionally recorded its hottest temperature ever – a figure of 18.3C at Argentina’s Esperanza research station.

Last week, images released by NASA revealed nearly a quarter of one Antarctic island’s snow cover was melted during the heatwave, with one geologist noting that the melting was more typical for an area like Alaska than the Antarctic.

“I haven't seen melt ponds develop this quickly in Antarctica,” Mauri Pelto, a geologist at Nichols College in Massachusetts, told NASA's Earth Observatory.

“You see these kinds of melt events in Alaska and Greenland, but not usually in Antarctica.”

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