There's So Much 'Green Snow' in the Antarctic, You Can See It From Space

A view of green snow in the Antarctic Peninsula.
The Antarctic Peninsula is considered one of the 'greener' regions of the continent. Matt Davey

Welcome to the green, green acres of Antarctica.

Yes, you read that right. Scientists note that algal blooms are dressing up parts of the South Pole in emerald hues so vast they can be seen from space.

In a new research paper published this week in the journal Nature Communications, scientists from University of Cambridge and the British Antarctic Survey suggest the blooms could be spreading thanks to an increasingly temperate climate.

Using three years' worth of data from the European Space Agency's Sentinel 2 satellite, they compiled the first map of algae blooms on the Antarctic Peninsula — a 1,500-mile swathe of land considered the warmest in the continent.

"We have created the first ever large-scale map of microscopic algae as they bloomed across the surface of snow along [the] Antarctic Peninsula," study co-author Matt Davey of the University of Cambridge's Department of Plant Sciences, tweeted this week. "Results indicate this 'green snow' is likely to spread as global temperatures increase."

The blooms are hardly a modern phenomenon. Ernest Shackleton even noted them on his ill-fated 1914 expedition.

"We are not saying that the blooms are there now due to climate change, we do not have the data for that, the blooms have been observed there for decades since the early expeditions," Davey explained to MNN in an email.

But the British explorer might have never imagined they would grow to the point of being spotted from space.

A small, but meaningful, slice of Antarctica

As researchers note in the study, only a minuscule amount — about 0.18 percent — of the continent is free of ice. Even the relatively lush Antarctic Peninsula has just 1.34 percent of its exposed ground covered in vegetation.

In that very narrow ecosystem, the growing greenery stands out like, well, a polished gem. And now that researchers have an accurate map of their current scope, they can gauge its continued growth.

"We now have a baseline of where the algal blooms are and we can see whether the blooms will start increasing as the models suggest in the future," Davey tells Reuters.

Specifically the so-called green snow is made up of microscopic algae as it blooms across the warmer regions of the peninsula. In all, the researchers spotted more than 1,600 distinct blooms, according to a University of Cambridge press release.

A scientist overlooks green snow in the Antarctic.
In an ecosystem known for its universal whiteness, the sp;lashes of green really stand out. Matt Davey

A growing green presence

Antarctica may not ever be mistaken for the Emerald Isle, but it may get a lot greener in the coming years. A big reason for that is the increasingly temperate conditions. These microorganisms — alongside lichen and moss — thrive in water. And water, thanks to ice-melting temperatures, is becoming increasingly available in the Antarctic.

Indeed, green snow appears most prevalent where average temperatures hover above 32 degrees Fahrenheit during the region's summer months from November to February.

"As Antarctica warms, we predict the overall mass of snow algae will increase, as the spread to higher ground will significantly outweigh the loss of small island patches of algae," study co-author Andrew Gray tells CBS News.

Marine life, researchers add, also play a role in how the green snow algae is distributed. Through their excrement, mammals and birds inadvertently produce a powerful fertilizer to speed algae along in its growth. Most of the blooms, for instance, were found with a few miles of a penguin colony, as well as the nesting sites of other birds and seals.

When you factor in the appearance of red snow, which is caused by another type of algae, it adds up to a kaleidoscope of color in a place commonly known as the White Continent.

"The snow is multi-colored in places, with a palette of reds, oranges and greens — it's quite an amazing sight," Davey adds.

He plans to continue his research at the Scottish Association for Marine Science.