When we imagine the mighty Alps, the image of tall, steep mountains covered with surreal white snow often comes to us. But have you ever imagined that the Alps were painted in blood? Seems like it’s beyond the wildest dreams, doesn’t it? Not really.
The French Alps stand all winter until spring, shrouded in hard white snow. When summer slowly creeps in, the snow starts to blush. Parts of this snow reflect bright colors; deep blood red, orange, rusty browns, lemonade pink. The locals are well aware of this and have a name for it. They call it, “Sang de glacier” or “Glacier blood”. Tourists and visitors call it “Watermelon Snow.” It may seem like Ullr (the Norse god of winter and snow) demonstrated his artistic skills and painted his canvas scarlet red. Or as if Khione (the Greek goddess of snow) had decided to change the color of her bright white dress to vermilion.
When Antarctica drifts away from the Alps, there has often been the news when Antarctica turns red. Travelers and researchers have wondered for years what causes such colors. Such unearthly poetic scenes made great thinkers like Aristotle scratch their heads.
In reality, the redness of the snow comes from the overgrowth of algae. In recent years, such glowing snow has occurred in alpine climatic regions around the world. It has been researched and experts say that the blooming of snow algae, normally invisible to the naked eye, has seen a remarkable increase in recent times.
Snow algae blooms have been a phenomenon for centuries. The great Aristotle, a student of Plato, owes it to the merit of being the first to write about this algae embarrassment in the Antarctic about 2000 years ago! Aristotle wrote in his book History of Animals: âIncidentally, living animals are found in substances that are believed not to rot normally; Worms can be found, for example, in long snow, which turns reddish in color, and the larva that spawned in it is, as you can imagine, red and hairy. âWell, the microscope was supposed to bless the world with its presence back then.
What Aristotle called hairy worms and maggots is what the microscopically blessed scientific world today calls algae. The genius was right, the snow gets its reddish color from the algae. The particular type of algae that is responsible for this dramatic color phenomenon is Chlamydomonas Chlamydomonas nivalis. It exists in snow-capped polar and glacier regions and has a red pigment that is responsible for keeping them warm and alive.
As the temperature rises, the algae bloom accelerates and the snow turns reddish in color. The closer they are packed, the darker the tint and the more the temperature of the snow rises. As a result, the ice begins to melt faster. Melting the snow proves beneficial for the microbe to survive and thrive. On the other hand, it is degenerative and unhealthy for the glaciers that are already thawing for a myriad of reasons.
Why is it harmful to the snow?
The red algae mix in the albedo of the snow and change it. Albedo refers to the amount of light or radiation that the snow surface reflects back. Any change in the albedo leads to an increase in melting. Therefore, the algae bloom, which could be a treat for the eyes, is not a good sign for the environment.
Some researchers have studied the algae in the Alps to better understand what species live there, how they survive such extreme climates, and what factors ultimately make them bloom.
These tiny but powerful plant-like bacteria that we call algae serve as the foundation of the ecosystem. Having the ability to photosynthesize, they produce oxygen and, surprisingly, contribute a considerable amount of the earth’s oxygen. These tiny microbes form the basis of numerous food webs and play a remarkable role in sustaining life on planet earth.
But sometimes the eye-soothing reddish hue or pink hue turns into a dramatic deep red. Then we know that algae growth is out of control, which upset the balance. This overdose of algae can cause toxic blood-like red tides, dirty freshwater blooms, and blood-like glacier scenes.
What is the reason for such an algal bloom?
There isn’t a single reason that can justify the embarrassment of algae, but there are several conditions that can be conducive to such bloom. The perfect mixture of temperature, nutrients, optimal pH value, salt content, cloudiness and sunlight, among other things, develop a state in which the algae continue to multiply shamelessly.
Mostly red, but sometimes also gray, yellow and green, these snow-dwelling microbes owe their color tones to the pigments and other molecules. These pigments protect them from the ultraviolet (UV) light and help them absorb more sunlight. This causes the snow underneath to melt faster, which is a serious problem as it disrupts the ecological balance.
The melting of the world’s glaciers has almost doubled in 20 years thanks to irresponsible human behavior that has increased the surface temperature of our planet by 1 degree Celsius. Researchers have found that a man-made factor can serve as a cause of such an algal bloom. Rise in temperature due to global warming, easy availability of nutrients from agricultural wastewater and toxic wastewater are among the few reasons that cause such uncontrolled algae outbreaks in oceans and freshwater lakes. Scientists believe that such incidents will become even more common as global temperatures rise.
Effects on animals
Interestingly, people who witnessed such a scarlet winter say that the snow not only looks like a watermelon, but also smells like it. Some scientists have denied such a concept, others tried to explain that the microbes may be responsible for such a friendly smell. They also warned people not to consume the watermelon snow as it could cause serious stomach problems.
These red microbes cause red tides when they overflow in an ocean or fresh water. While watermelon snow does not have a deadly effect on animals, red tides have been known to wreak havoc on animal health. The neurotoxins produced by the alga destroy marine life and lead to massive fish deaths. People who consume shellfish, who may have died from such an algal bloom, can cause serious illness. Interestingly, the neurotoxins climb up the food web. Whales, dolphins and sea turtles that are killed could be linked to such algal blooms.
Since the global temperature has risen by 1.5 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times, it is very worrying that such algal blooms are becoming more common. Glaciers are important in maintaining the fresh and salt water balance on earth. With more human intervention, the environment is already on the way to degeneration. Such incidents of glacial blood or red tides need to open the eyes of humanity to respect mother nature and choose a more sustainable way of life.