Watermelon Snow

It’s the last day of August and therefore in Canada some of us have autumn, the winter, then snow on our minds but also are squeezing the last summer out of summer.  One more watermelon.

We are hard at work completing the Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning to get to you as soon as we can. But still, we pause to share with you a little story of watermelon snow; a bridge between these summer and winter icons.

I first heard of watermelon snow in Antarctica.

Pink/red snow was a mystery for ages, a misunderstood phenomena.  Watermelon snow appears at high elevations in spring or summer.  It is caused by concentrations or “blooms” of microscopic algae.   It is said to also smell like watermelon, imagine that. In Scandanavia some call it ‘blood snow’.

Where Wendy and I were at Russia’s Bellingshausen research station was the fraction of ice-free land of King George Island on the Fildes Peninsula. There were active glaciology studies while we were there in summer.  Scientists would also study the pretty snow near the Weddell Sea, Antarctica, reporting in Astrobiology Journal findings such as “spectroscopy of senescing snow algae: pigmentation changes in an Antarctic cold desert extremophile.”

Every day I learn new verbs, terms and things about Antarctica.  Senescing is reaching maturity. And astrobiologists compare green and red algae for “possible bio-markers for spectral detection on extraterrestrial icy moons and planets.” (British Antarctic Survey). I am dismayed knowing that the glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula are retreating rapidly.

If you looked in a microscope of watermelon snow, this is what you might see (thanks Dr Frank Lang, host of Nature Notes on Jefferson Public Radio).

tiny microscopic algal cells, most likely the resting cells of Chlamydomonas nivalis, the snow algae, although it could be one of several other related genera. The single, green, cup-shaped chloroplasts of individual cells are masked by the presence of red pigments. It is the collective presence of these tiny plants that give the snow its color.

These cryophilic, that is, cold-loving algae, carry out their lives and loves in the chilly water-filled spaces among ice crystals in melting snow. It is in these chilly waters that resting cells germinate, producing flagellated cells that swim about, reproducing asexually until motile gametes or asexual resting cells are formed. Gametes unite and zygotic resting cells develop. There is no heat generated by love or sex in these creatures…Algae’s own photosynthesis provides for their energy needs and that of other organisms in a snowbound ecosystem.  

Explorer Captain James Ross sailing to Greenland and the Canadian Arctic was baffled by the snow.  The London Times, Dec. 4, 1818 reported:

“Captain Sir John Ross has brought from Baffin’s Bay a quantity of red snow, or rather snow-water, which has been submitted to chymical analysis in this country, in order to the discovery of the nature of its colouring matter.”

Watermelon Snow California W Armstrong 2004

More than once in Antarctica would local snow or ice be put into a drink.

There is no watermelon snow marguerita in our Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning but if there were Wendy would put a delicious spin on it.  Stay tuned to see what Antarctic beverages, cultural, science and historical tidbits you will find.

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