Spooky 'blood snow' invades Antarctic island

Streaks of red algae coat the Antarctic ice in "blood snow."
Streaks of red algae coat the Antarctic ice in "blood snow." (Image credit: Andriy Zotov)

It's summer in Antarctica, which means record-high temperatures, jarring glacial melt and — in a very metal symbol of our changing climate — a bit of blood-red snow spattered across the Antarctic Peninsula.

Over the past several weeks, the ice around Ukraine's Vernadsky Research Base (located on Galindez Island, off the coast of Antarctica's northernmost peninsula) has been coated in what researchers are calling "raspberry snow." A Facebook post by the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine shows the scene in full detail: streaks of red and pink slashing across the edges of glaciers and puddling on the frosty plains.

Blood-red algae blanket the snow near Antarctica's Vernadsky Research Base. (Image credit: Andriy Zotov)

That blood (or "jam" as the researchers whimsically call it) is actually a type of red-pigmented alga called Chlamydomonas Chlamydomonas nivalis, which hides in snowfields and mountains worldwide. The algae thrive in freezing water and spend winters lying dormant in snow and ice; when summer comes and the snow melts, the algae bloom, spreading red, flower-like spores. 

Related: Gobs of sea-foam wash up in Spanish town. Here’s why. 

This phenomenon, which Aristotle noticed way back in the third century B.C., is known as "watermelon snow," "blood snow" and a host of other less poetic names.

The phenomenon's red color comes from carotenoids (the same pigments that make pumpkins and carrots orange) in the algae's chloroplasts. In addition to their crimson hue, these pigments also absorb heat and protect the algae from ultraviolet light, allowing the organisms to bask in the summer sun's nutrients without risk of genetic mutations. 

That's good for the algae but not great for the ice. According to the Ukrainian researchers, it’s easy for these blooms to kick off a runaway feedback loop of warming and melting.

"Snow blossoms contribute to climate change," the team wrote in the Facebook post. "Because of the red-crimson color, the snow reflects less sunlight and melts faster. As a consequence, it produces more and more bright algae."

The more heat the algae absorbs, the faster the surrounding ice melts. The more ice that melts, the faster the algae can spread. That, in turn, leads to more warming, more melting, and more algal blooming.

A similar feedback process is driving more extreme algal blooms in oceans all over the world, resulting in surreal scenes like an invasion of sea foam in Spain and blue, bioluminescent "tears" clinging to China's coasts. While watermelon snow has existed for millions of years, algal blooms thrive in warm weather, meaning we can probably expect to see more events like this as the climate changes.

Originally published on Live Science.

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Brandon Specktor

Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest, CBS.com, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.

  • ty2010
    Get used to those foamy oceans, rather than restoring real wetlands to capture biomatter before reaching the oceans, instead, phosphorus was targeted so the matter passed without a bloom. The "wetlands" being restored now are natural marshy areas allowed to flood by the cleanest streams so birds have nesting areas, not useful at all. Real wetlands are the bogs, swamps and deltas, they get oily sheens, foamy, they go anaerobic and kill wildlife and they release tons of methane and noxious gasses while sinking carbon. In total, they are nature's open sewers, composting piles and septic tanks, they do the work because the ocean can't.
    Besides being unsightly and having unpleasant odors, they'll occasionally flood and spill their "pollution" into waterways causing blooms and fish kills, also against what the public perceives as "nature". So waterways and flood waters are diverted straight to the ocean, which can't handle the load. Constant pollution that doesn't look bad is acceptable, small pollution that occasionally looks bad is unacceptable to the public.
    Is there a solution to destroying the world through "cute animal" environmental activism?
  • Lucille
    Actually, some day the waters will turn to blood.
  • Kidwell32
    Thank you for updating us with the outcome.