Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Antarctica you did not know!

If your view of Antarctica is that of a barren and white landscape, well think again!

During my three week assignment this past March in Antarctica with G Adventures we visited one of my favorite locations, Petermann Island.  Just north of the Antarctic Circle, Petermann Island is a small low rounded island 1.8 km (1.1 mi) long and 1.2 km (0.75 mi) wide.  On the two occasions we visited, both were entirely different.

For the first visit, we were met with sparkling white snow, yet only one week later, I could not believe my eyes as the entire landscape had turned bright pink and green!  I was to learn that this was due to the formation of algae.

When I returned home and started to process my images, I wanted to learn more about the phenomenon.

Here is an explanation by Luis Georg which I came across on a website named PerfScience.

 "In a new study, researchers have described about red-pigmented, snow-dwelling algae that has turned Arctic glaciers’ snow into pink. After analyzing red snow algae present across 21 glaciers in the pan-European Arctic, the researchers have raised concerns as snow algae accelerates the melting of Arctic glaciers. 

 The algae are present all over the world in polar and alpine settings from Greenland and Antarctica to Iceland and the European Alps. In the winter, the red snow algae are present in dormant state in the snow as spores. But as the spring and summer take place and their icy habitat starts to melt, they start to produce pink landscapes.

As per the researchers, the algae are helping the snow melt faster. Glaciers are known to keep the planet cool by reflecting sunlight. But when glaciers melt, they give way to ocean surfaces having a lower albedo, which makes earth to absorb more sunlight and heat. 

 In the case of red snow algae, they reduce the albedo by 13%. Study’s lead researcher Steffi Lutz of the University of Leeds said that red snow algae blooms could quite widespread in the Arctic by summertime. 

The researchers said that current climate change models include black carbon, but they should also include algae too. For now, the researchers do not have a clear idea on the level of role algae plays in melting glaciers. 

“Based on personal observations, a conservative estimate would be 50 percent of the snow surface on a glacier at the end of a melt season. But this can potentially be even higher”, said Lutz. Now, the research team is working to find out the level of the melt because of the red snow algae. 

 It is an important aspect as Arctic has witnessed quite a hot year. A concern being raised by the researchers is that even if red snow algae have a smaller role to play on Arctic ice cover today, their role could increase has human carbon emissions warm the planet. 

In order to bloom, the algae need liquid water. Therefore, if there would be more melting, there would be more algae. It is expected that as temperatures are rising globally, the snow algae phenomenon would also increase leading to an even bigger bio-albedo effect. 

The algae are green in color, but they produce a natural sunscreen that turns the snow pink and red. The addition of color darkens the snow color, making it to heat faster and causing it to melt more rapidly. Now, the researchers are aware of what causes the snow turn pink but it was a high-latitude curiosity when Arctic explorers like the British Captain John Ross reported about it. 

In fact, when the London Times reported about it in 1818, it was speculated to be the result of meteoriciron deposits. The current study highlights the far-reaching effects of climate change."

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