Antarctica conjures up images of an unbroken white wilderness, but algal blooms give parts of the frozen continent an increasingly green sheen.
Warming temperatures due to climate change contribute to the formation and spread of "green snow" and are so productive in places that, according to a new study published on Wednesday, it is even visible from space.
While the presence of seaweed in the Antarctic was discovered long ago during expeditions, such as the British explorer Ernest Shackleton undertook, its full extent was unknown.
A team of researchers from the University of Cambridge and the British Antarctic Survey have now used data collected over two years from the European Space Agency's Sentinel 2 satellite, along with field observations, to create the first map of the algal blooms on the bottom of the Antarctic Peninsula coast.
"We now have a baseline of where the algal blooms are, and we can see if the blooms will increase in the future, as the models suggest," said Cambridge University Department of Plant Sciences Matt Davey to Reuters.
Mosses and lichens are considered the dominant photosynthetic organisms in Antarctica. However, the new mapping found 1,679 separate algal blooms, which are a key component of the continent's ability to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
"The seaweed bloom in Antarctica is roughly the amount of carbon that is omitted from 875,000 average trips by British gasoline cars," said Davey. "That seems like a lot, but it is insignificant in terms of the global carbon budget.
"Although it absorbs carbon from the atmosphere, it does not affect the amount of carbon dioxide that is currently released into the atmosphere."
Green is not the only splash of color in the Antarctic. Researchers are now planning similar studies on red and orange algae, although this is more difficult to model from space.
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