Over the past few weeks, snow around Ukraine’s Vernadsky Research Base, located off the coast of Antarctica’s northernmost peninsula, has started to take on a red tinge, courtesy of an algae that thrives in freezing weather. Because of the red tinge, the snow is often dubbed “watermelon snow”.
Significantly, however, the red snow raises concerns about the rate at which the glaciers will melt away and eventually affect sea-level rise.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle is believed to be one of the first to give a written account of watermelon snow over 2,000 years ago. In the “History of Animals”, Aristotle has mentioned, “And, by the way, living animals are found in substances that are usually supposed to be incapable of putrefaction; for instance, worms are found in long-lying snow; and snow of this description gets reddish in colour, and the grub that is engendered in it is red, as might have been expected, and it is also hairy.”
Why is the snow turning red?
According to a 2016 report in The New York Times, such algae as found around the Ukrainian research base grow well in freezing temperatures and liquid water. During the summer, when these typically green algae get a lot of sun, they start producing a natural sunscreen that paints the snow in shades of pink and red. In the winter months, they lie dormant.
The algae produce the tinted sunscreen to keep themselves warm. The report mentions that because the snow becomes darker from the tinge, it absorbs more heat, as a result of which it melts faster.
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Further, these algae, that are not uncommon in other polar settings around the world, change the snow’s albedo, which refers to the amount of light or radiation the snow surface is able to reflect back. A 2016 report published in the journal Nature refers to the melting of the Arctic as “unprecedented” and mentions the key drivers as snow and ice albedo.
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According to the Alaska Pacific University, the melting snow is good for the algae who thrive on it, but bad for the glaciers that are already melting.
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