What color should glacier algae be? An ecological role for red carbon in the cryosphere

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Red-colored secondary pigments in glacier algae play an adaptive role in melting snow and ice. We advance this hypothesis using a model of color-based absorption of irradiance, an experiment with colored particles in snow, and the natural history of glacier algae. Carotenoids and phenols—astaxanthin in snow-algae and purpurogallin in ice-algae—shield photosynthetic apparatus by absorbing overabundant visible wavelengths, then dissipating the excess radiant energy as heat. This heat melts proximal ice crystals, providing liquid-water in a 0°C environment and freeing up nutrients bound in frozen water. We show that purple-colored particles transfer 87%-89% of solar energy absorbed by black particles. However, red-colored particles transfer nearly as much (85%-87%) by absorbing peak solar wavelengths and reflecting the visible wavelengths most absorbed by nearby ice and snow crystals; this latter process may reduce potential cellular overheating when snow insulates cells. Blue and green particles transfer only 80%-82% of black particle absorption. In the experiment, red-colored particles melted 87% as much snow as black particles, while blue particles melted 77%. Green-colored snow-algae naturally occupy saturated snow where water is non-limiting; red-colored snow-algae occupy drier, water-limited snow. In addition to increasing melt, we suggest that esterified astaxanthin in snow-alga cells increases hydrophobicity to remain surficial.

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