Climate change turns parts of Antarctica green: ‘Beginning of a new ecosystem’

Rodiano Bonacci
Mag 20, 2020

Scientists at the University of Cambridge and the British Antarctic Survey have been researching algae blooming across melting snow on the Antarctic peninsula.

Mosses and lichens are considered the dominant photosynthetic organisms in Antarctica - but the new mapping found 1,679 separate algal blooms that are a key component in the continent's ability to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Nearly two-thirds of the inexperienced algal blooms had been discovered on small, low-lying islands across the north of the peninsula, which has skilled some of probably the most intense heating on this planet, with new temperature data being set this summer time.

The blooms form on the top of snow in warmer areas along the coast, where temperatures tend to stay above 0 C. It normally appears between November and February, with growth accelerated by the presence of nitrogen and phosphorus. Researchers are now planning similar studies on red and orange algae, although that is proving harder to map from space.

Blooms of green snow algae were found to grow in the warmer regions of the continent, where average temperatures are just above 0C during the summer months.

In some areas, the single-cell life-forms are so dense they flip the snow shiny inexperienced and could be seen from area, in keeping with the research, published on Wednesday within the journal Nature Communications. They predict 62 percent of the blooms in these areas will be lost.

Over 60% of blooms were found within five kilometres of a penguin colony, the researchers said.

"This increase is predicted to outweigh biomass lost from small islands, resulting in a net increase in snow algae extent and biomass as the Peninsula warms", they wrote. Feces from these animals, the team say, act as a fertilizer to help speed up algal growth. "With multiple and often unknown species recorded within patches of green snow algae, and little known about the dispersal mechanisms, life cycles and plasticity of snow algal species, losses from these islands could represent a reduction of terrestrial diversity for the Antarctic Peninsula", they wrote.

"It's the beginning of a new ecosystem", said Matt Davey of Cambridge University, one of the scientists who led the study.

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