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‘Watermelon snow’: Italian glacier turns pink, making it melt faster

An aerial picture taken on July 3, 2020 above the Presena glacier near Pellizzano, shows pink colored snow, supposedly due to the presence of colonies of algae of the species Ancylonela nordenskioeldii from Greenland.
An aerial picture taken on July 3, 2020 above the Presena glacier near Pellizzano, shows pink colored snow, supposedly due to the presence of colonies of algae of the species Ancylonela nordenskioeldii from Greenland. Miguel Medina / AFP / Getty Images

An Italian glacier is looking a lot like cotton candy lately, but scientists say it’s not a good thing.

Pink snow, or “watermelon snow,” has appeared at the Presena glacier in Northern Italy. Though it’s fairly common in the spring and summer seasons, researcher Biagio Di Mauro told CNN it’s been more notable this year.

Photos taken by Miguel Medina of the Agence France-Presse (AFP) show large swaths of Italian Alps snow coloured with a tint of pink.

It’s believed that the alga named Chlamydomonas nivalis causes the pretty, but harmful, colour change, he told CNN.

Read more: By 2070, billions could be living in areas too hot for humans, study says

“It is for sure bad for the glacier,” the Institute of Polar Sciences researcher said.

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Di Mauro plans to study the phenomenon in more detail, mapping the blooms using satellite data.

While white snow typically reflects back 80 per cent of the sun’s radiation, darkened snow will absorb heat, and therefore melt, quicker, the AFP reports.

“The alga is not dangerous, it is a natural phenomenon that occurs during the spring and summer periods in the middle latitudes but also at the Poles,” Di Mauro, who had previously studied the algae at the Morteratsch glacier in Switzerland, told the AFP.

An aerial picture taken on July 3, 2020, above the Presena glacier (2700-3000 m), near Pellizzano, shows pink-colored snow, supposedly due to the presence of colonies of algae of the species Ancylonela nordenskioeldii from Greenland.
An aerial picture taken on July 3, 2020, above the Presena glacier (2700-3000 m), near Pellizzano, shows pink-colored snow, supposedly due to the presence of colonies of algae of the species Ancylonela nordenskioeldii from Greenland. Miguel Medina / AFP / Getty Images

“We are trying to quantify the effect of other phenomena besides the human one on the overheating of the Earth,” Di Mauro said.

Meanwhile, in Antarctica, climate change is turning the snow green, causing what some scientists have called the “beginning of a new ecosystem.”

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Scientists at the University of Cambridge and the British Antarctic Survey have been researching algae blooming across melting snow on the Antarctic peninsula.

In photos shared by the university team, the typically crisp white landscapes are tinted green by new algae growth, which they believe could create a source of nutrition for other species, their research says.

Read more: Climate change turns parts of Antarctica green — ‘Beginning of a new ecosystem’

Though each alga is microscopic, when they grow together they turn the snow bright green, which can be seen from space.

“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,” Matt Davey, the study’s leader, said. “Snow algae are a key component of the continent’s ability to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis.”

Their findings, published in May in the science journal Nature Communications, mark the first large-scale map of peninsular algae growth, which will be used to map its growth progress as Earth continues to warm.

“It’s a community,” Davey told The Guardian. “This could potentially form new habitats. It’s the beginning of a new ecosystem.”

If the algae continue to grow, it could have a wider positive impact on Earth.

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“I think we will get more large blooms in the future,” Andrew Gray, the lead study author, told the publication. “Before we know whether this has a significant impact on carbon budgets or bio-albedo, we need to run the numbers.”

meaghan.wray@globalnews.ca