Dr Matt Davey, who led the study, said: "This is a significant advance in our understanding of land-based life on Antarctica, and how it might change in the coming years as the climate warms".
Researcher Andrew Gray geo-tagging snow algae blooming on Anchorage Island, near Davis Station, Antarctica.
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. "Snow algae are a key component of the continent's ability to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis". Algae has always been observed in the Antarctic, but researchers say its range is expanding due to record temperatures caused by climate change, per the Guardian.
The latest mapping effort, detailed Wednesday in the journal Nature Communications, confirmed green snow algae blooms are most frequently found when temperatures hover above zero degrees Celsius.
A team led by Matt Davey, from the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge, U.K., used satellite data and ground observations to create a large-scale map of algal blooms that appear along the Antarctic Peninsula during the continent's summer.
In some areas, these single-cell life-forms are so dense, they turn the snow bright green. these can also be spotted from the space, according to the study.
The research also shows that green snow occurs in areas where wildlife live because animal poop fertilizes algae.
They identified more than 1,600 separate green algae blooms on snow across the peninsula, with a combined surface area of 1.9 square kilometres. Nearly two thirds of the green snow the scientists found was on smaller, low-lying islands. However, in terms of mass, the majority of snow algae is found in a small number of larger blooms in the north of the Peninsula and the South Shetland Islands, in areas where they can spread to higher ground as low-lying snow melts.
The team found most blooms were within around three miles of penguin colonies, and that the algal blooms were strongly influenced by marine birds and mammals. Researchers are now planning similar studies on red and orange algae, although that is proving harder to map from space.
While the presence of algae in Antarctica was noted by long-ago expeditions, such as the one undertaken by British explorer Ernest Shackleton, its full extent was unknown. The snow algae were less conspicuous in colder and southern regions.