Unveiling Antarctica: Beyond the white monotony

Unveiling Antarctica: Beyond the white monotony

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I was one of those who claimed to recognize a single white color. But the truth is, I was not looking at all. 

February 2019, King George Island, Antarctica. 

It feels like sharp needles are poking and piercing my face. I was not prepared for the intense sting of icy breath on my lips or the sensation of sweat turning to ice on my skin. I wonder if I’m touching the sky with my feet. Here, light cannot seem to settle anywhere; the sun’s rays constantly bounce off thousands of ice crystals, creating a dazzling display like millions of tiny mirrors in the wind. It took a bit of patience before my eyes started seeing tens of colors unfolding in what I thought was a completely white monotonous space. 

Once seen as a vast, frozen desert, characterized by harsh winds and emptiness, Antarctica has undergone a significant change in our understanding. The turning point came with the discovery of the first microorganisms beneath a glacier in the Swiss Alps in 1999. This discovery challenged the idea that ice and glaciers are uninhabitable, leading to an exciting era of exploration. Further research revealed the incredible presence of life, from microorganisms in ice particles forming clouds, liquid veins between minuscule ice crystals, to hidden lakes 800 meters under the massive West Antarctic Ice Sheet. These discoveries have not only reshaped our view of Antarctica but also highlighted the remarkable resilience and adaptability of life in the most extreme environments on Earth.

Snow acts as a home for a variety of organisms, such as viruses, fungi, and microalgae. The latter can create colorful blooms that change the snow’s hue based on their life stage and pigment composition. One of the most visually remarkable adaptations of glacier algae is their ability to produce a specialized pigment that appears purple and absorbs both visible and ultraviolet light. This pigment not only serves as a protective shade for the most light-sensitive parts of the algae’s cells but also helps them absorb sunlight more effectively. As surface melting and sunlight create favorable conditions for algae, they contribute to the accelerated melting of glaciers and ice sheets.

Once seen as a vast, frozen desert, characterized by harsh winds and emptiness, Antarctica has undergone a significant change in our understanding.

Ximena Aguilar Vega

February 2020, King George Island, Antarctica. 

A sense of unease settled over me. It seemed as if a wind of dark dust had muted the once brilliant landscape we had experienced just the year before. Our boots navigated through mud, clear evidence of the thawing terrain. Streams of meltwater flowed in all directions, washing away the remaining snow and obscuring everything in their path. The subtle colors of the snow and glaciers, which I had hoped to study, had completely vanished.

J. Cook and other polar scientists recently made a significant discovery: In 2017, the growth of light-absorbing algae mainly caused around 10 to 13 percent of the total runoff from Greenland, which is currently the most significant contributor to rising sea levels. Around the globe, blooms of pigmented algae are increasingly covering bright surfaces, from the maritime lands of the Inuit to the frozen water towers of the Himalayas, and even reaching the Antarctic Peninsula. This region has experienced the most rapid warming in recent decades, and blooms have started appearing scattered throughout the maritime zones and islands, where glaciers have been retreating dramatically. 

Antarctica, with its seemingly uniform exterior hiding thousands of subtle tones, holds within its ice layers the very essence of human existence. As the hot atmosphere blends the colors of Antarctica as we speak, I continue desperately looking, staring at the cold, treasuring the vanishing whites of the heart of the Earth. 

Take a moment to pause, allowing your eyes to adjust. Invite the light in and you will start to see beyond the glare: If we lose the light of Antarctica, we lose the world. 

Ximena Aguilar Vega, an esteemed polar scientist based at the University of Stirling, Scotland, integrates scientific and artistic exploration to deepen our understanding of the Arctic and Antarctic.

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