When Scientists Found Antarctic Ice Stained Blood Red, They Soon Realized The Worrying Implications

On an ice-covered island off the coast of Antarctica, researchers at a Ukrainian facility are busy studying the changing climate of planet Earth. Then one morning they stumble upon a horrific sight. Surrounding the station is a swathe of blood-red snow, standing out against the white landscape like something from a horror movie. Did a gruesome massacre happen here? Or was it something with even more terrifying implications?

Situated upon Galindez Island in Antarctica’s Wilhelm Archipelago, Vernadsky Research Base has been welcoming experts in one form or another for more than 70 years. And in that time, its inhabitants have surely witnessed some strange and wild sights. But in February 2020 they observed a phenomenon that was truly chilling.

In photos posted on social media, the team revealed a strange and bloody scene. Around the base the snow was streaked with gory reds and pinks, calling any number of macabre scenarios to mind. So what happened out in the wilds of Antarctica, and why did the ice of Galindez Island turn such a gruesome hue?

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Had a fearsome beast from the frozen south stumbled upon an innocent victim, perhaps? Or was the sinister snow the result of an elaborate prank conducted by a mischievous researcher? The answers have revealed something shocking about the state of our planet and will strike fear into hearts across the globe.

Intriguingly, the crew at Vernadsky Research Base are far from the first people to have discovered snow of an unusual color. In March 2018, for example, a series of strange images began appearing on social media. Snapped in various locations across Eastern Europe, they showcased a particularly strange sight.

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The images showed that the mountainsides of Russia, Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine had taken on an otherworldly shade of orange. For days, people puzzled over the bizarre hue – although winter sports continued unabated. And experts were eventually able to get to the bottom of the dramatic color change.

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In a March 2018 interview with the British newspaper The Independent, weather expert Stephen Keates blamed the phenomenon on something almost disappointingly mundane. He said, “There has been a lot of lifted sand or dust originating from North Africa and the Sahara, from sand storms which have formed in the desert.”

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“As the sand gets lifted to the upper levels of the atmosphere, it gets distributed elsewhere,” Keates continued. “Looking at satellite imagery from NASA, it shows a lot of sand and dust in the atmosphere drifting across the Mediterranean.” According to experts, these deposits had fallen on Eastern Europe, coloring the snow a startling orange hue.

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So could the same process explain the blood-red phenomenon that appeared in Antarctica two years later? Well, the nearest desert to Vernadsky Research Base is many miles away. But there have been similar incidents with less obvious explanations, such as the oily orange snow that fell on Siberia in 2007.

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According to reports, this snow had a foul odor as well as being orange in color, and it eventually covered an area of almost 600 square miles. Even today, though, experts remain unsure as to exactly what caused it. Blame was initially laid on airborne toxins, although others have suggested that a rocket being sent into orbit or a sandstorm in Kazakhstan may have caused the phenomenon.

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Twelve years later, Siberia would experience another unusual snowfall, this time a sinister black in color. Early in 2019 residents of Kuzbass reported that mounds of dark-colored flakes were carpeting their towns. And in the local media coverage, the scenes were understandably deemed “post-apocalyptic.” But what was the reason for this unsettling sight?

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Unlike other incidents involving strange snow, Siberia’s black ice was more easily explained. Across the Kuzbass area, a number of unregulated open mines produce coal for the global market. And while countries such as Britain benefit from the operations, the local residents are forced to live in terrible conditions.

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As the coal pollutes the atmosphere, it finds its way back to Earth as black snow – a stark reminder of the environmental damage wrought by the mines. And Siberia isn’t the only place in Russia where oddly colored flakes are indicative of such issues. More than 1,000 miles away, in the Urals region of Russia, snow’s been known to take on a green hue.

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Late in 2016 reports claimed that a blanket of green snow had fallen on Pervouralsk in the Sverdlovsk region. And according to The Siberian Times website, a leak at a nearby chemical facility was to blame. In an interview, spokesman Vladislav Oreshkin explained, “The accident today happened on a pipe between a pump and a cleaning station, so some of the water pumped from under the ground went on the surface.”

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Although officials were quick to assure the residents of Pervouralsk that they weren’t at risk, not everyone believed them. Photographs of the acid-green snow then appeared across social media. So could a similar toxic leak have been behind the phenomenon that shocked researchers at Vernadsky Research Base?

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Founded in January 1947 as the British-run Faraday Research Base, there are few scientific bases on our planet that are as remote as the facility on Galindez Island. Initially established to study ionospherics, meteorology and geophysics, it was taken over by Ukraine early in 1996. And today its work focuses mainly on Earth’s climate trends.

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For the scientists based here, a placement at Vernadsky typically means long periods spent isolated from the rest of the world. And on top of the psychological challenges, the environment can also be hostile and even terrifying. While temperatures sometimes drop under -4 °F, vicious killer whales prowl the freezing waters surrounding the base.

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But it wasn’t a blood-thirsty beast that caused the outbreak of crimson snow at Vernadsky Research Base. In fact, the phenomenon has been spotted on numerous occasions at different locations across the globe. First observed by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, it’s believed to date back to at least the 3rd century B.C.

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Though Aristotle was able to unravel many of the mysteries of the universe, he failed to discover the cause of the red snow. And at the start of the 20th century, many scientists still wrongly believed that the unusual coloration was caused by pollen or minerals. But eventually its true nature was revealed.

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Over the years, red snow has been observed in diverse regions around the world, from the Sierra Nevada mountains in California to the highlands of Scotland. And as well as Antarctica, the phenomenon has also cropped up on the other side of the world in the Arctic. But despite the differences between these locations, the root cause is suspected to be the same.

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In 1819 a group of explorers brought back some of this red snow from the Arctic. But while this gave scientists an opportunity to study the substance, there was still much debate surrounding its origins. Then in the early 1900s researchers finally determined that a type of algae was behind the unusual hue.

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Given its official name of Chlamydomonas nivalis during the late 1960s, the algae has been observed on all of Earth’s continents. And when it appears, it creates a phenomenon that’s been dubbed “watermelon snow.” But how exactly do these organisms cause the sort of blood-red horror show that was witnessed by the team at Vernadsky Research Base?

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According to experts, the algae responsible typically lie dormant during the colder months. And in Antarctica, this means that the organisms spend much of the year slumbering beneath the terrain’s surface. But as temperatures rise, Chlamydomonas nivalis begins to reappear – and puts on a startling show.

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Intriguingly, though, Chlamydomonas nivalis itself is actually green in color, rather than red. But in higher temperatures its cells release pigments known as carotenoids. Designed to absorb excess heat, this substance works to shield the algae from solar rays in much the same way as sunscreen safeguards human skin.

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Carotenoids are responsible for the distinctive orange coloring seen in vegetables such as carrots and pumpkins. But in these algae, the pigments manifest as a blood-red hue. So when the Chlamydomonas nivalis are exposed to the sun, it turns an increasingly unsettling crimson color – creating sinister streaks such as those spotted on the Antarctic ice.

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But while the researchers stationed on Galindez Island might have been relieved to know that a massacre hadn’t occurred out on the snow, the truth still has worrying implications. According to experts, algal blooms such as these can initiate an alarming cycle. And this could spell trouble for what’s already one of Earth’s most fragile ecosystems.

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“Snow blossoms contribute to climate change,” Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science wrote in a February 2020 Facebook post. “Because of the red-crimson color, the snow reflects less sunlight and melts faster. As a consequence, it produces more and more bright algae.” In other words, Chlamydomonas nivalis creates a snowball effect that can be difficult to slow down.

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As the algae continues to take in heat, the ice near it melts at an accelerated rate. And as a result, the Chlamydomonas nivalis expands over a wider area. As temperatures rise across the globe, scientists are concerned that these cycles may become unmanageable and in turn contribute to the wider climate crisis.

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And unusual algal blooms aren’t just restricted to the Antarctic ecosystem. In January 2020, for example, residents in the Spanish seaside resort of Tossa de Mar saw a wall of gelatinous sea foam descend on the town. According to experts, the thick bubbles were formed when the waters of the Mediterranean Sea mixed with a sticky substance known as a surfactant.

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While some surfactants are generated by pollution, algal blooms can also play a role in their development. And when they do, the resultant sea foam is often toxic in nature. According to experts, the organisms responsible can sometimes create neurotoxins which become trapped in the bubbles and are subsequently released into the atmosphere.

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It isn’t just humans who’re likely to suffer if this toxic substance spreads, either. In both the Pacific Northwest and California, sea foams created by algal blooms have had devastating effects on local wildlife. Birds that came into contact with the substance were rendered unable to fly or protect themselves from the cold weather.

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And in the Matsu Islands off the coast of Taiwan, a type of bioluminescent algae referred to as blue tears has been wreaking havoc in the East China Sea. On the surface, the organisms – technically miniscule critters dubbed dinoflagellates – are beautiful and give off an otherworldly light that draws tourists from across the country. But according to experts, they’re alarmingly toxic as well.

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These blue tears are believed to have caused illness in human beings as well as fish and other aquatic creatures. Although scientists are still unsure exactly what’s behind this phenomenon, they suspect that pollutants in China’s Yangtze River could be responsible. And like the ones on Galindez Island, these algal blooms are showing no sign of slowing down.

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The most alarming aspect of the algal blooms in Antarctica is of course their startling crimson color. But it’s not just Chlamydomonas nivalis that can turn the landscape this unusual shade. In Florida, for example, another form of algae known as Karenia brevis is responsible for a phenomenon dubbed the “red tide.”

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Also technically a dinoflagellate, Karenia brevis gathers in areas off the Florida coast, turning the ocean a sinister blood-red. And while most of these blooms are harmless by nature, others have been known to produce dangerous toxins. When released, experts believe, these can cause health problems in both marine creatures and humans.

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Over the years the Florida authorities have spent millions of dollars cleaning up the dead marine life left behind in the wake of red tides. But even that environmental impact pales in comparison to the chaos that Chlamydomonas nivalis could cause. In an Antarctica that’s heating up, this crimson snow serves as a portent of the potential disasters to come.

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On February 9, 2020, just days before the crew at Vernadsky Research Base spotted the red snow surrounding the station, scientists in Antarctica made another alarming observation. Some 230 miles to the east, at Marambio Research Base, the temperature was clocked at an astounding 69.35 °F. And according to reports, this broke records for all the wrong reasons.

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It was the first time that a temperature higher than 68 °F had ever been recorded in Antarctica. And in the same month, aerial photographs captured by NASA revealed the devastating impact of these conditions. On one island, for example, almost 25 percent of the snow cover had completely melted away.

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“I haven’t seen melt ponds develop this quickly in Antarctica,” geologist Mauri Pelto told The Independent in February 2020. “You see these kinds of melts in Alaska and Greenland, but not usually in Antarctica.” And with the frozen continent changing, what does that mean for the world as a whole?

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If algae continues to bloom in the snow surrounding Vernadsky Research Base, it could accelerate the rate at which Antarctica’s ice is disappearing. If this happens, we could see sea levels climb across the planet – with entire cities at risk of slipping beneath the waves. At the moment, scientists are still studying Chlamydomonas nivalis – and we can only hope that they find a way to slow it down.

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