Mosses and lichens are considered the dominant photosynthetic organisms in Antarctica - but the new mapping found 1,679 separate algal blooms that are a key component in the continent's ability to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Researchers found that nearly two thirds of the blooms were on small, low lying islands, and said that as the Antarctic Peninsula warms due to rising global temperatures, these islands could lose their summer snow cover and algae - although in terms of mass the majority of snow algae is found in areas where they can spread to higher ground when snow melts.
Study creator Andrew Gray geotagging the snow algae blooms. Sign-up now and enjoy one (1) week free access!
"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", Matt Davey of the University of Cambridge's Department of Plant Sciences told Reuters.
Antarctica is a polar continent, but it's not just a vast land of ice and snow.
He described the algae map as a lacking piece of the carbon cycle jigsaw within the Antarctic. "In fact when you look around the fringe there is a lot of plant life". This is equal to the emissions of about 875,000 automotive journeys within the United Kingdom, although in world phrases it is too small to make a lot of a distinction to the planet's carbon finances.
Patches of green snow algae can be found along the Antarctic coastline, usually in "warmer" areas, where average temperatures are a little above zero degrees Celsius during the Southern Hemisphere's summer months of November to February.
They're also influenced by marine birds and mammals, whose natural fertilizer acts as an accelerant.
But that loss will probably be offset by a preponderance of large algae blooms as temperatures rise and snow at higher altitudes softens.
"Conversely, in the north of the peninsula we saw some really large blooms and we hypothesise that we are likely to see more of these larger blooms".
As it gets warmer, algae spores are germinating on the surface of Antarctica's snow.
The Antarctic Peninsula is the part of the region that has experienced the most rapid warming in the latter part of the last century, researchers say. The majority of algae live in watery environments, and when excess nitrogen and phosphorous are available they can multiply rapidly to create visible algal blooms. White snow reflects around 80 percent of the Sun's radiation, while green snow only reflects about 45 percent. The blooms the researchers mapped can remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as driving a vehicle a million miles would create.
"We expect there to be more suitable habitat and overall more carbon sequestration".
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