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The Antarctic Ice is Turning Green

Is climate change real? Can we observe climate change? Yes, climate change is very real and we can observe it. The latest instance where we observed the impacts of climate change is in Antarctica. 

Antarctica, the continent which had remained undiscovered by humans until the year 1820, is the southernmost landmass of the planet. It is a permafrost region, i.e., it perpetually remains under the ice cover. The years 1957 and 1958 were declared as International Geophysical Years and marked the beginning of scientific monitoring of Antarctica. Beginning from then till today, Antarctica has been surveyed by sea buoys, weather balloons, ships, aircrafts, and satellites. Several countries have also set up their permanent bases in order to study the climate, resources, fauna, and so on. 

Antarctica's role in global climate

Antarctica plays an important role in affecting the world climate. The ice sheet and the polar location of the continent affects the climate by acting as a heat sink. 

As we know, what affects one, affects all in nature. The climate change due to anthropogenic activities is affecting the environment not only in the continents where the human species live, but also in the Antarctic. The overall temperature of Antarctica is rising, though not uniformly, along with the increased melting of snow and glaciers.  

Recent developments 

In a recent study carried out by biologists from the University of Cambridge and the Antarctic Survey, patches of green snow have been observed in parts of Antarctica. This is due to the formation of green algae. This was the first large scale survey of green algae in Antarctica and was headed by Andrew Grey of the University of Cambridge. Though complete information about its distribution is not available, the survey revealed 1679 blooms of green algae covering an area of 1.9 square kilometres. Algae are single celled organisms and thus, not visible to the naked human eye, but when they are dense, they can be observed from space as they turn the snow bright green in colour.

The work, published in the journal Nature Communications, says that satellite and ground surveys were used to collect data over the Antarctic Peninsula and the nearby islands which are warming up over a period of six years. The austral summer, which lasts from November to February,  provides favourable temperatures to the algae. The temperature in this region is also usually higher compared to the rest of the continent. Along with this, the penguin ‘guano’, which releases laughing gas and is often responsible for causing headaches to the scientists, also helps to feed the algal growth. A reliable snow supply is needed for the algae to bloom and the slushy conditions created due to melting snow act as the perfect place for it to grow. Algae and its increasing population plays an important role in the coastal ecosystem by providing nutrition and means of sustenance to other species. The scientists also observed that these algae have formed bonds with bacteria and tiny fungal spores. This could mark the beginning of a ‘new ecosystem’ in the Antarctic. 

Researchers surveyed blooms of “snow algae” on Anchorage Islands, Antarctica. Credits: Matt Davey, via The Guardian.

What does this algal bloom mean for Antarctica?

Not only green algae, but red and orange algal bloom has also been observed in Antarctica in recent times. In February 2020, a streak of bright red colour was seen on an island off the Antarctic peninsula which turned out to be red algae. Mapping of red and orange algae will be done soon to detect their spread. Though it is not clear to the scientists what this algal bloom would mean for Antarctica and the global climate at large, the study can be used to assess the speed at which it would spread to other parts as the Southern pole warms up due to climate change. 

Algae are a part of the Antarctic carbon cycle and absorb somewhere around 479 tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year, but a lot of it is released back into the surrounding areas when the algae die or are eaten by other species. Not only this, algae also speed up the effects of climate change as algae darken the snow surface which leads to more absorption of sunlight. This increased absorption causes melting of snow which in turn leads to increased sea level at the global scale. This same phenomenon has been observed in Greenland as well. A heightened warming up of the Antarctic due to climate change could cause the whole system to crash. It is now upon people, individually as well as at a community level, and governments around the world to switch to sustainable methods of living in order to bring down pollution levels to save the world from its own doom. 

Dr. Matt Davey of Cambridge, one of the scientists leading the study. Credit: Sarah Vincent. Via Scientific American.


By Divanshi Gupta

Divanshi Gupta is a second year Political Science student at Hindu College and a General Body member at The Symposium Society. Besides having a keen interest in foreign affairs and diplomacy, she's an avid reader of Khaled Hosseini. Loves to discuss Mein Kampf, the latest addition to her bookshelf, but loves devouring Penne Alfredo more.

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