Pink snow? It could make climate change worse

Pink Arctic Glaciers

While beautiful, the pink snow’s effects on the climate could be drastic. Photo: Courtesy of Liane Benning/GFZ

For years, “watermelon snow” has been an interesting naturally occurring phenomenon witnessed on Arctic glaciers. The pink appearance is caused by freshwater algae blooms inside the snow.

And while it may look pretty-in-pink, a new study says that behind hue of the snow is a sobering reality: The algae that changes the tint of the glaciers is also causing those very same glaciers to melt at a faster rate.

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In a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature Communications, a group of geobiologists from Germany and Britain collected 40 samples of “watermelon snow” from glaciers and snowfields from Greenland, Norway, Sweden and Iceland.

Their study found that the red algae, which is formed when summer sunlight heats up leftover winter snow and frozen water, significantly increases the rate of Arctic melting by reducing snow’s natural ability to reflect sunlight (known as albedo).

And that could have major effects on climate change models, according to the authors of the study.

“Imagine wearing black instead of a white T-shirt in the sun. It feels much hotter,” Dr. Stefanie Lutz, a geobiologist at GFZ German Research Center for Geosciences and the lead author of the study, told the New York Times. “It is the same for the snow: More heat means more melting.”

“Our results point out that the 'bio-albedo' effect is important and has to be considered in future climate models,” Lutz wrote in her study, noting that current climate change forecasting models take account of other factors that darken Arctic glaciers and cause them to melt more quickly (such as carbon from far-away forest fires).

According to the study, the red algae that causes the beautiful looking “watermelon snow” decreases snow’s natural albedo by 13 percent.

While 13 percent might not seem like a large number, it’s more damning when looked at with the understanding that the Arctic is already melting at an unprecedented rate — NASA notes that Arctic sea ice is disappearing at an frightening rate of 13.4 percent per decade.

As if the news couldn’t be more bleak, per a statement on the study by the GFZ German Research Center for Geosciences, the increased melting actually leads to a runaway effect, wherein more algae bloom as more ice melts, causing the ice to get even darker in pigment, causing the ice to melt even more quickly.

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