The red snow, or watermelon snow, in the Arctic could have a major role in the warming snow, researchers determined in a study published on Thursday. Global warming models should take into account the possible repercussions of this phenomenon.

A research team, which published its finding in the journal Nature Communications, examined the microbes in the summer snow. This particular and colorful type of snow forms as the summer sun heats up and melts winter’s leftovers, as reported by the New York Times.

Red Snow in the Arctic
The red snow, also known as watermelon snow, pink snow, snow algae, and so on, is caused by the Chlamydomonas nivalis, a species of green algae. Credit:

When summer arrives, the melting produces a blooming environment for large communities of algae. Even though this are commonly green, the sun exposure creates the red color that combines it with the surrounding snow.

This addition to the usually white snow, darkens it, allowing it to heat up faster and melt more quickly, researchers noted in the paper. The team estimated that the overall decrease in snow albedo, the proportion of the incident light or radiation that is reflected by a surface, over the course of one snow season is about 13 percent.

“Imagine wearing black instead of a white T-shirt in the sun. It feels much hotter,” commented Stefanie Lutz, a geobiologist at GFZ German Research Center for Geosciences, in an email to the New York Times. “It is the same for the snow: more heat means more melting.”

For the study, the team analyzed 40 samples of snow from four locations and compared the red ones with clean white snow over the course of an Arctic melt season. Then they determined that the red one melted considerably faster than the clean one.

It remains unclear how much of the melting this red snow accounts for, or how this affects the increase of sea levels. The fact is that, according to researchers, this subject lacks investigation, so there is not much information about the red snow.

According to Lutz, the effects on albedo are going to be important for the melting glaciers, which play a huge role in the climate system. Current climate models consider how soot from forest fires, dust from the Sahara or even increased water content that turns the snow to blue, affect albedo, but its exact measure of the biological effects are not determined.

Such effect in the albedo with the current warming temperatures could cause a “runaway effect,” where the severe melting snow would cause algae to bloom, darkening the snow, causing more to melt and so on, Lutz commented.

Sea level

The melting problems in the Artic have reached a record-high level due to its ice has thinned up to 65 percent between 1975 and 2012. According to a report from National Snow & Ice Data Center, Arctic sea ice covered 5.61 million square miles at its maximum extent in 2015, making it the lowest point since the satellite record-keeping started in 1979. Research of the pole showed as well that the maximum ice coverage expected last year began 15 days earlier than forecasted. However, the situation in the Arctic, fortunately, does not have a direct impact on sea levels.

Even tough the Arctic does not have a direct impact on the sea levels, the problems appeared to be increasing without any help from the pole. According to some information related to sea levels and its possible consequences, there is enough water to raise sea level up to 230 feet and that is without taking into account the red snow effect.

Most of the world’s largest amount of ice is located in Antarctica and Greenland, two of the locations that were study by Lutz, but those currently do not pose a threat according to some scientists. However, other experts show worries about the massive West Antarctic Ice Sheet, a more vulnerable spot that holds nearly 11 feet of potential sea level rise.

The last time that a massive melt remotely similar to the possible one occurred, was about 10,000 years ago and happened during a time that only about 5 million people lived on Earth. Those people were not even near a coast, where the then total population now lives within 4 feet of high tide and major infrastructures have been developed as well.

And even if it was not enough, the increasing sea level will not be stopped in a near future, according to researchers. The damage already done to Earth has already committed the planet to further temperatures increases and further melting of the ice as well. The possible scenarios now are just to diminished those consequences.

Some of the actions that global institutions are trying to implement right now are not aimed to stop the sea level rising complete, but to make sure the problems would not be much worse than expected. The data from possible outcomes cannot offer clear forecast as the rates keep increasing without stable points.

Source: Nature