Thriving algae blooms are turning the Antarctic green
Researchers from Cambridge University and the British Antarctic Survey have, for the first time, mapped the spread of the microscopic green algae growing across the Antarctic Peninsula, one of the fastest-warming areas on the earth. The study, published last month, identifies more than 1,600 rapidly-spreading algae blooms. The study predicts the algae growth will continue to accelerate in coming years as rising temperatures turn ice into slush, which is an ideal habitat for the microscopic flora.
The spreading algae is laying the foundation for a new ice cap ecosystem. Experts are divided on whether this increases or decreases CO2. Some say that the algae has the potential to capture CO2 by developing carbon sinks: Through the process of photosynthesis, the algae currently traps as much carbon as is released by 875,000 cars in the U.K. in a year. And this number will only increase as the organism spreads. But other scientists argue that the algae will darken the snow and absorb more heat from the sun, which could increase the rate of the ice melt.
“These are primary producers at the bottom of a food chain. If there are changes in the algae, it obviously has knock-on effects further up the food chain,” Cambridge scientist Matt Davey told BBC News. “And even though the numbers we’re talking about are small on a global scale, on an Antarctic scale they’re substantially important.”
Photo by Matt Davey.