Strange Images of 'Blood Snow' in Antarctica Shared by Scientists Working at Research Station

Ukrainian scientists at a research station in the Antarctic have shared images of a strange phenomenon affecting the area around their base—blood red snow.

The scientists say the red snow that has been visible near the Vernadsky Research Base—located on Galindez Island off the Antarctic's coast—in the last few weeks is caused by a type of algae known as Chlamydomonas nivalis.

The algae is found around the world in mountainous and polar environments. In fact, C. nivalis is the most common type of algae found in show, according to a study published in the European Journal of Phycology.

The algae are capable of surviving in extremely cold temperatures that are common in Antarctica throughout the winter. But now that the southern hemisphere is in the middle of summer, the algae is turning red.

When this species of green algae receives lots of sunlight, is produces special red pigments known as carotenoids that act as a kind of natural sunscreen, protecting the algae from excess heat and ultraviolet radiation. Specifically, the pigment prevents damage to the algae's chlorophyll—a green pigment essential for the algae's survival.

This process creates the phenomenon—often referred to as "watermelon snow"—that can be seen in the images from the Ukrainian research station.

watermelon snow
Image of the red snow at the Vernadsky Research Base—located on Antarctica's Galindez Island. Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine

Intriguingly, the watermelon snow also has a reportedly sweet smell, not too dissimilar to the fruit that it is named after, Smithsonian Magazine reported. Compressing watermelon snow can make it turn a deeper shade of red.

According to the Ukrainian scientists, the algae absorbs more sunlight when it is red in color, which can cause snow to melt faster, creating a runaway feedback loop.

"Snow blossoms contribute to climate change. Because of the red-raspberry coloring, the snow reflects less sunlight and melts faster. As a result, it produces more bright algae," a Facebook post from Ukraine's Ministry of Education and Science read.

Уже кілька тижнів українська антарктична станція «Академік Вернадський» оточена… малиновим снігом!Звідки він та чому...

Posted by Міністерство освіти і науки України on Monday, February 24, 2020

One study published in the journal Nature Communications found that red snow can decrease snow's albedo—a measure of how much light that hits a surface is reflected—by 13 percent in a single melt season. The researchers say this process is contributing to melting in the Arctic—which is occurring at an "unprecedented rate."

"This will invariably result in higher melt rates," the authors wrote in the study. "We argue that such a 'bio-albedo' effect has to be considered in climate models."

The phenomenon of watermelon snow was actually first documented by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle in the fourth century B.C.