Unusual Pink Snow on Alps Is Being Eaten by Algae

Unusual pink snow found in the Alps is being investigated by Italian researchers. The discoloration is the result of algae that lives on the snow and "eats it," Biagio Di Mauro, from Italy's National Research Council, told Newsweek in an email.

Di Mauro and colleagues had previously studied algae on glaciers in the European Alps. In their study, published in Scientific Reports, the team looked at the Vadret da Morteratsch glacier and found an abundance of Ancylonema nordenskioeldiia. This, they wrote, is a "species that has never previously been quantitatively documented in the Alps and that dominates algal blooms on the Greenland Ice Sheet."

The team said finding this algae in the European Alps is important because of its potential impact on global warming. The algae, they said, could produce a feedback loop that may have an impact on glacier melting.

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In their latest investigations, the team found a big bloom of snow algae at the Presena glacier, Italy, that is likely caused by the species Chlamydomonas nivalis. "Snow and glacier-algae naturally grow on snow and ice when the environmental conditions allow it," Di Mauro said.

"Chlamydomonas nivalis gives a red hue to seasonal snow. This is a quite common phenomenon in the Alps and elsewhere... At the Presena glacier, there was really a big bloom. I haven't processed the data yet, but I suspect it was Chlamydomonas nivalis. This alga often appears in seasonal snow, and it 'eats' the snow with a consequence of an earlier snow melt."

Algae that causes discoloration to snow and ice is of some concern because it reduces the albedo effect. This is where ice cover produces a cooling effect on the planet by reflecting the sun's light back into space, rather than being absorbed. Earth's albedo is currently in decline. A study published in PNAS last year found the Arctic albedo was declining by between 1.25 and 1.5 percent every decade.

Warmer global temperatures may lead to algae blooms in regions where they were not previously present. "[To live, algae] need nutrients, solar radiation, and liquid water. If climate change will create more often this condition in the future, we would expect more colorful snow. This triggers the snow-albedo effect and causes more melting."

In an interview with AFP, he said the algae is not dangerous and tends to appear in the spring and summer at middle latitudes. He said the team is now "trying to quantify the effect of other phenomena besides the human one on the overheating of the Earth."