One of the benefits of scientific research is that knowing the true cause of strange phenomena alleviates the fear of it. That’s generally a good thing … unless the facts are scarier than the rumors and myths. That’s the case with the Fortean phenomena of non-white snow. Frank Zappa reinforced the cause of yellow snow, but black, red, brown, blue and other strange hues were mysteries until science could link the colors to their sources … which were sometimes natural (dust, algae, microbes) but more often pollutants that were scarier and possibly deadly than the myth – not just to the public but to the corporations and governments who hid the causes from the public. A recent appearance of pink snow in the Alps has generated concern because of its unusually intense color, but it’s also causing conflicts between those who want to blame in on climate change while others prefer to point the finger at anything but. Which is it?
“The alga is not dangerous, it is a natural phenomenon that occurs during the spring and summer periods in the middle latitudes but also at the Poles.”
Most reports on the Presena glacier in the Alps of northern Italy quote researcher Biagio Di Mauro, a pink or watermelon snow expert from the Institute of Polar Sciences at Italy’s National Research Council. Actually, he’s a snow algae expert and was one of the first people on the scene after aerial views showed the bright pink snow, which he said was caused by Chlamydomonas nivalis, an algae having a banner year due to low snowfall and high temperatures. And, while it’s not dangerous to humans, Di Mauro still has a warning:
“It is for sure bad for the glacier.”
And THAT is bad for humans. Rapidly melting glaciers are a sign of climate change, but the consequences of accelerated runoff into the oceans, lack of cold habitat for some wildlife and a reduction in fresh water for others is a major concern. The Presena glacier has lost more than one third of its volume since 1993 and conservationists have begin covering it with white tarpaulins to block the sun. The pink snow just makes things worse, since it absorbs heat rather than reflecting it like the white stuff, keeping it from melting. The Guardian reports that one company alone covers 100,000 square meters with tarps.
1- The alga was probably Chlamydomonas nivalis (a snow alga), not Ancylonema nordenskioeldi (a glacier alga)
2- the phenomen is quite common in the Alps
3- the relationship with climate change has yet to be proven
However, things could be worse. Di Mauro was forced to tweet a clarification that what he saw in the Alps was a snow algae, not the more dangerous glacier algae known as Ancylonema nordenskioeldi, which is responsible for massive dark zones in Greenland that are responsible for large scale glacier melting and that is the algae associated with climate change, not the more benign pink snow algae which just melts snow and shortens ski seasons.
Is this nitpicking? Snow that’s not white is rarely a good thing. Most scientists agree that shrinking glaciers is not a good thing. Shouldn’t scientists like Di Mauro be allowed to do their jobs without pressure to define their terms for those with non-scientific agendas?
When was the last time a country elected/appointed/supported a scientist as its leader? Isn’t it about time?