Cryoconites

The other night I watched a documentary called Chasing Ice, a quite remarkable story of the lengths a photographer went to in order to record the retreating glaciers of the world (and is still going to, given that Extreme Ice Survey are now setting up cameras in the Antarctic to complement their Arctic and Montanan coverage!)

As a testament to courage and passion in pursuing an avocation, Chasing Ice would deserve a watch. As a record of the extraordinary way in which the cryosphere (the world’s ice) is quietly vanishing away at the moment, it deserves a watch. As a memory of vanishing landscapes, which we will probably never see again in our lifetimes (ice takes a long time to form glaciers!) I felt that I had to buy a copy of the DVD in order to preserve a piece of our heritage.

Amongst the stunning scenery and the superb cinematography, I was struck by something quite extraordinary. At one point, the term “cryoconites” was mentioned. I looked it up. In general, I don’t rely on Wikipedia for information – it’s a very useful place to start off with a basic description and then I chase the links up to get to the peer-reviewed science (which usually goes slightly over my head but I’m trying to improve myself!) What really caught my attention with the cryoconites was that here, in the middle of millions of square miles of ice, were lifeforms that could survive on dust and sunlight, and which had the power to melt the ice-sheets.

Imagine that. Microscopic algae and dust, yet they are changing their environment around themselves. How? Because they’re dark in colour. It’s not even something they’re doing deliberately¬† – it’s just because they happen to be dark-coloured by their nature. Dark objects absorb more heat from the sun than light coloured ones do (which could also be described as dark coloured objects reflect less light than pale ones do) and because of that, each of these tiny balls of dust-and-algae warms the ice on which it sits until they’re growing in a pool of water.

I find that quite amazing, to consider the effect these algal colonies are having on the planet. Too small to affect the environment? Not one bit.

It’s also quite hopeful – surely if they can change their environment without even trying, we should be able to achieve something amazing too – if we put our combined efforts into mitigating climate change.

 

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