Due to climate change, Antarctic snow is being taken up by seaweed – which can be seen even from space. Although this phenomenon has been documented on previous expeditions, researchers have only now discovered its full extent.
Through the European Space Agency's (ESA) Sentinel-2 satellite, a research team from the University of Cambridge developed a map of the presence of algae on the continent in collaboration with the British Antartic Survey. Through data collected on the ground and images recorded over two years by the satellite, the group identified 1,679 separate algal blooms.
Mosses and lichens are photosynthetic organisms essential to the Antarctic ecosystem. However, its existence was controlled by the extreme cold – which is losing ground to higher temperatures that even cause the melting of glaciers. With global warming, researchers warn that mapped blooms can multiply over the years.
Seaweed is popularly known as "the true lungs of the world" and, therefore, some people may think that this phenomenon is something positive. However, it is part of a major problem that Antarctica has been suffering for a long time: the imbalance of its ecosystem.
"The algae in Antarctica are equivalent to the amount of carbon being emitted by 875,000 average trips of gasoline cars in the UK. It seems like a lot, but in terms of the global amount of carbon, this is insignificant," explains the Department member of Plant Sciences at Cambridge University, Matt Davey.
The researchers' next step is to go beyond green coloring and map red and orange algae that, although they do not appear in the Sentinel-2 satellite images, may also have multiplied.