Why is the Snow in the French Alps turning Blood Red?

by Sushree Mohanty

Why is the Snow in the French Alps turning Blood Red?

June 14, 2021

Glaciers in the French Alps look like a bloody war site. Typically, glaciers are topped with pure and pristine white snow. However, we see a different picture of the French Alps increasingly getting covered with blood like red spots. Curious researchers have dug down to investigate the blotches caused by alpine algal blooms.

The Science behind the Red Blotches

During the chilling winter and throughout the spring, the French Alps are wrapped in white snow or layers of ice. However, as soon as the spring turns to summer, these mountain slopes and the area start to blush. 

It seems like the mountains have applied some kind of makeup. Different parts of the snow are covered with different bright shades of red. People name this “sang de glacier” – the French translation for “glacier blood.” Some also refer to it as “watermelon snow.”

In reality, these blotches aren’t blood. The strangely-hued aggregations are caused due to microalgae. Yes! These invisible creatures cause microalgae blooms. This phenomenon is known as Chlamydomonas Nivalis. It means a species of green algae containing a red pigment undergoes active photosynthesis and, in that process, stains the white snow.

Statistics of recent years show that alpine regions and habitats have experienced an uptick in algae blooms, causing the snow to stain dramatically red. We might view this event as strange yet beautiful. Scientists are curious to dig deeper into the cause that might portend a menacing future of the French Alps.

The strangely-hued aggregations are caused due to microalgae. These invisible creatures cause microalgae blooms.

What have the Scientists found?

Scientists at several alpine institutes decided to focus on the algae species “that grow next door,” as said by Eric Maréchal, the head of a plant physiology lab at Grenoble Alpes University and a leader of the project.

They found that Sanguine, an algae genus that produces a blood-red hue, is located at high altitudes. Also, two green microalgae variants called Symbiochloris and Desmococcu exist at altitudes below 4,921 feet.

A team of French scientists embarked on a project (AlpAlga) related to the complete study on microalgae. Their main focus was to find out about the significant climate crisis faced globally. In a published study in the Plant Science section of the Frontiers, the team remarkably described these algal blooms as “potential markers of climate change.” The scientists learned strange facts about these stains.

Although the researchers haven’t completely understood the reasons behind the algae blooms, it might not be a good sign for the white snow staining red. Researchers have started investigating and surveying the algae of the Alps. 

However, these microalgae blooms are being reported not only in the Alps but also in the Rockies. Even Antarctica and Greenland are not spared. 

A team of French scientists embarked on a project (AlpAlga) related to the complete study on microalgae.

Watermelon Snow

The original credit and accounts of using the words’ watermelon snow’ are in the writings of Aristotle, which people have adopted as a nickname for the “glacier blood”. They now call it watermelon snow, red snow, or even blood snow.

However, it’s strange that many people have reported that the snow meaningfully smells slightly sweet, similar to that of a watermelon. Maybe, this faint smell of the watermelon-like scent of these snow algae made Aristotle give such an impression.

Tiny yet very powerful to turn the world upside-down, Algae, a plantlike bacteria, are sometimes referred to as “the basis of all ecosystems,” said Adeline Stewart, an author and doctoral student at Grenoble Alpes University in France. Algae are popularly known for their photosynthetic prowess and can produce a large amount of the world’s oxygen.

But sometimes, on the other side of this prowess, they overdo natural processes and set things out of balance. Disturbances in their ecosystem may have caused the glaciers to stain blood red. Again, another strange fact is that the color of the blotches depends upon the pigments and other molecules that the microalgae use to protect themselves from ultraviolet light.

These mountains are now called watermelon snow, red snow, or even blood snow.

The Vision for a Potent Future

One of the biggest reasons behind the rapid shrinking of glaciers and melting snow are the algae. Imagine these invisible creatures absorb so much sunlight for photosynthesis that it causes the underlying snow to meltdown dynamically.

Scientists believe that we as humans have generated so many factors capable of worsening the outbursts of the microalgae disturbances and making the phenomenon of ‘Watermelon snow’ more frequent. Warm temperatures, extreme weather conditions, unbalanced sewage control, scummy freshwater, and industrial wastes all have caused severe damage to the environment.

Although many factors are leading towards an unstable equilibrium of nature, it might not be the reason for Glacier blood. Scientists have found the algae subjected to surpluses of nitrogen and phosphorus. They are still testing in this field to discover the upcoming unusual properties of the algae blooms.

“The limits of DNA sampling mean that even this study gives an incomplete picture of what’s living in and under the snow”, said Heather Maughan, a microbiologist and research scholar at the Ronin Institute in New Jersey.

Scientists believe that the incredible diversity of alpine algae have made the world understand the game of nature. Maybe, it’s time to dig deeper into the fact that there exists an entirely new population of undiscovered algae, viruses, and strange creatures under the snow. And maybe this glacier blood serves as the wake-up beacon for the climate crisis and ecosystem disturbances.


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