A red-pigmented green algae found in the high alpine and polar regions around the globe could play a major role in melting glaciers and snowfields. Scientists believe Chlamydomonas nivalis or “pink snow” is threatening water supplies in the U.S., which like the rest of the world depends greatly on snowmelt for its freshwater supply.
The science and other stuff to know
Fresh snow has a highly reflective surface that helps it absorb little heat and retain its semi-solid state. But when snow is afflicted by algal blooms, its surface turns darker and results in additional heat absorption that expedites melting.
And as algae need nutrients, light, and liquid water to flourish, the hastened melting of water provides it the resources it needs to continue expanding. Hence, the “algal bloom alters its own habitat and appears to alter the surrounding habitat in the process,” HighCountry News reported.
University of Montana researchers Jim Elser and Pablo Almela Gomez conducted their studies on the pink snow in the Glacier National Park using a spectroradiometer, a small black tube, dangled over a plot of snow.
The device records the snow’s albedo, a measure of what fraction of the sunlight beaming down is reflected back up. “Red snow means lower albedo, which means more absorbed sunlight and faster snowmelt. Other factors also influence albedo, including dirt, dust and ash from wildfires,” the HighCountry report said.
Understanding of the snow algae is only just expanding, but it is crucial to analyze the future of water supply, especially in the drought-prone western U.S.
Scientists are trying to figure out what influences this pink snow to grow and expand. A higher concentration of this algae means glacial melt would increase and lead to erratic water supply and water wastage. Nature needs a steady and gradual supply of freshwater from glaciers, as it is required for life forms in waters downstream to sustain the hot summer months. An increased rate of snowmelt, however, will spell trouble. So scientists are working to understand the algae and how it can be contained to limit the snow melt at a natural rate.
While Elser and his team continue to analyze the algae behavior and its effects on the surrounding environment, others claim the algae has nothing to do with the increased rate of snowmelt. Still, HighCounrty reported that a 2021 article in the journal Nature Communications found that algal blooms were responsible for up to 13 percent of the surface melting that occurs on Greenland’s ice sheet, while a study in Alaska suggests that snow algae account for 17 percent of the total melting on one large icefield, a 21 percent increase.
Water is a precious resource and Earth is running out of it fast. Any effort that investigates an aspect that could worsen water supply in the years ahead should be a welcome sign and should be encouraged. Water preservation is essential and must be supported at all costs.