pink snow algae

The Living Snow Project (LSP) is a citizen science program housed at Western Washington University that studies “watermelon snow,” or snow algae. Snow algae are a prominent part of snowy alpine landscapes in spring and summer months, especially in the Pacific Northwest, because they produce intense blooms that turn snow pink or red. However, many people do not know that this snow is literally alive, and the bright color is it a visual indicator of an active snow microbial ecosystem.

Blooms of snow algae are intricately tied to the process of snow melt because these organisms need liquid water to reproduce while simultaneously accelerating melt by darkening the snow surface. We predict that warming in the future will support snow algae blooms at higher elevations, making them a threat to already rapidly retreating glaciers around the world. Changes in glacier melt ultimately lead to changes in river flow, forest health, and fire management planning.

To study the biology of snow algae and their impact on the rate of snowmelt, we need to understand the spatial and temporal variability of blooms in the North Cascades. We still can’t answer the basic question ‚Äì How do the snow algae reappear on the snow from year to year? This requires large-scale observation and sample collecting over time, which can be accomplished with the help of volunteers and field-based education programs. The program has run for three years and has grown from 10 volunteers in 2014 to 200+ in 2018. We believe citizen science projects like LSP and CSO can have a significant impact on our community’s understanding of the interconnectedness of alpine biology and snow, and how science can help us understand, enjoy, and conserve our mountains.

So far, we have processed samples from 2013-2017. It looks like we have some new “species” of snow algae in the PNW – the strains we see here are genetically distinct from samples sequenced from Europe, Greenland, Japan, and Antarctica. We also see that each community (the algae + bacteria, fungi, and other amoeba-like things) in a region can different. For example, we have samples collected on an elevation transect on Mt Baker and Glacier Peak and we found that adjacent samples within a basin/snow field can be different. It appears that the environment is selecting for the communities of algae found in each pink patch, and elevation, mean annual temperature, and date of collection are the most important factors. So, low elevation snow algae are different species than snow algae found at high elevations later in the season.

Volunteers who sign up will get a collection kit. Each kit has two sample collection tubes, two gloves and some plastic sealing film. The tubes have a DNA preservative in it (non-toxic) and people can scoop pink snow into the tube with the cap, while wearing a glove. We typically want the brightest pink snow, so we ask people to look around and sample a spot that looks bright and clean. If there is lots of snow algae where the collector is hiking or climbing, we want them to just pick a convenient (or scenic) spot.

We made a video that is on YouTube (link on our website) that shows you how to scoop snow using the lid of the cap. After collecting, the voluenteer simply records the GPS coordinates and ultimately mails the sample back in to us (they are stable in the refridgerator for months).

We also are encouraging people to snap photos of the collecting and post them to social media use the hashtag #livingsnow and/or a hashtag of the watermelon and the snowflake icons (we show this on our website and Instagram account @living_snow_project) and tag @living_snow_project. This is a fun way for all everyone to see the cool places people are sampling. I would like to build a big regional community of people volunteering—especially if they can collect samples for the Living Snow Project and Community Snow Observations at the same time!

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