It turns out that Iceland is more green than icy while Greenland is more icy than green, but we could always count on Antarctica being an icy white … until now. A mysterious and massive area of green ice has appeared on satellite images and researchers are scrambling to explain it before it attracts boatloads of St. Patrick’s Day partiers.
The huge hunk of green Antarctic ice was spotted on March 5, 2017, by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) camera on the Landsat 8 satellite and is located in the Granite Harbor near the Ross Sea bay of Antarctica’s Southern Ocean. Multiple images indicate that the luminous green ice covers at least 1000 sq. km (650 sq. miles) and appears to be growing rapidly. It also seems to be more slushy than solid. The cause of the green color is not a mystery to Antarctic experts, but where it’s at in the ice and why it’s there at this time of the year is.
The green color is most likely caused by phytoplankton, at least according to marine glaciologist Jan Lieser of Australia’s Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research. The microalgae has been seen in Antarctic ice before, with the most famous green ice occurrence being photographed in late February and early March of 2012 when a green mass was seen measuring 200 km by 100 km (20,000 sq. km) or 124 miles by 62 miles (7688 sq miles) – much bigger than the current one. The green ice was also seen near Granite Harbor in 2015.
However, that green ice occurred in the late summer when phytoplankton normally occurs and is on the decline. The current frigid algae bloom is in early autumn and is increasing, even though the waters are getting colder as winter approaches.
Another mystery involves where in the ice the algae is located. While the ice looks green from above, it’s difficult to ascertain whether the algae is growing on a frozen surface, trapped underneath it or mixed in with a slushy slur of autumn ice. An expedition in April hopes to answer that question.
Why the green ice is occurring so late in the year is another mystery and a possible cause for concern among climate change experts. This may not be a continuation of a summer bloom but a new second season of phytoplankton. While the first season provides food for zooplankton and fish, is the second batch the seed for next year’s crop? Or is it the result of whatever is causing Antarctic ice to melt and world oceans to rise?
Is the green ice of Antarctica a canary in a cold mine sending us a warning? We may soon find out.