KISS Greenland Hello
June 28, 2016
Flew in this morning from Copenhagen, setting up at KISS, Kangerlussuaq International Science Support, a remnant of the old SAC base that was once the dominant presence here, (hence one of the world’s longest runways – B- 52 worthy).
Spent a couple of hours unpacking and setting up, this will be my base of ops for a few weeks, and it’s buzzing. There’s an East Greenland Ice Sheet group here, Facebook here has some pretty amazing pics of their operation on the ice.
This is what I came for, to interact with the scientists busy gathering data and doing science. Odds are, none of them will ever win a Nobel prize – unlikely they’ll have their names in the paper or show up on the evening news. They do this because they love to work in extreme but beautiful conditions, they enjoy the challenge of doing work that that demands every part of their being, and they care about what’s happening to this critical part of the planet.
Here’s a surprising example: Turns out “Watermelon Snow” is not just something you get in a paper cone at the county fair.
Pink algae that blooms across the surface of Arctic glaciers and snowfields each summer is absorbing heat instead of reflecting it. And according to a new study published by scientists with the Helmholtz German Research Center for Geosciences, it is a more powerful contributor to the warming feedback loop than previously understood. The algae causes what is known as “watermelon snow” because the ice and snow around it turns pink. It could be responsible for reducing the reflectivity of the snow surface by as much as 13 percent on glaciers and snowfields studied.
The peer-reviewed study was published this week in the journal Nature Communications.
The study is the latest trying to explain what causes “amplification” of Arctic warming. For years, researchers have documented how the shrinking of bright, reflective Arctic ice is exposing more dark-colored ocean and land. Dark surfaces absorb more heat, spurring more Arctic warming. Sea ice, glaciers and ice sheets are also getting darker because of industrial pollution, soot, ship exhaust and smoke from wildfires.
According to the new research, the little-studied algae may be playing a large role as one of these critical darkening agents. The algae turn pink as they reach peak summer bloom. The color comes from pigments that protect the algal cells from ultraviolet radiation. The more the Arctic warms, the more algae grow, which in turn leads to even more darkening and melting.
The research team studied the algae at 40 sites on 16 glaciers and snowfields in different parts of the Arctic and subarctic, from Greenland to Iceland and Svalbard to the north of Sweden. They used light-sensitive instruments to measure how much the algae is reducing the reflectivity of the snow and ice, and found it has cut reflectivity by 13 percent during the melt season. They also analyzed the algae’s genetics and found that that the communities are very similar across the Arctic. That enabled the scientists to extrapolate their findings across the region.
“At the moment this bio-albedo effect is not included in any albedo or climate models,” said co-author of the study Steffi Lutz, a molecular ecologist at the Helmholtz German Research Center for Geosciences in Potsdam, Germany. “Up to now, climate models have only considered soot from forest fires and Saharan dust as external factors in the meltdown,” Lutz said.
Albedo is the scientific name for the reflectivity of a particular surface. Bio-albedo refers to the role of algae and other organisms in reducing the reflectivity of the snow and ice, and Lutz said her study was the first to study bio-albedo on a broad scale.
“This study was focused on glaciers, but ice sheets will be included in the future. We can’t see a reason why there wouldn’t be a similar effect on ice sheets,” she said.
Red snow usually appears during late spring and summer months, according to a statement by the GFZ. Thin layers of liquid water form on ice and snow in the Arctic, providing the right conditions for the growth of the algae. Over the winter season, the algae fall dormant.
Algal blooms create a snowball effect. The more glaciers and snow fields that thaw, the more algal blooms will occur, darkening the surface of remaining snow and accelerating melting, the German Research Centre for Geosciences explained.
“The algae need liquid water in order to bloom,” Lutz told Gizmodo. “Therefore the melting of snow and ice surfaces controls the abundance of the algae. The more melting, the more algae. With temperatures rising globally, the snow algae phenomenon will likely also increase leading to an even higher bio-albedo effect.”