Glacier algae foster ice-albedo feedback in the European Alps

Mauro B Di, R Garzonio, G Baccolo, A Franzetti, F Pittino, B Leoni, D Remias, R Colombo, M Rossini

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Citations (Scopus)


The melting of glaciers and ice sheets is nowadays considered a symbol of climate change. Many complex mechanisms are involved in the melting of ice, and, among these processes, surface darkening due to organic material on bare ice has recently received attention from the scientific community. The presence of microbes on glaciers has been shown to decrease the albedo of ice and promote melting. Despite several studies from the Himalaya, Greenland, Andes, and Alaska, no quantitative studies have yet been conducted in the European Alps. In this paper, we made use of DNA sequencing, microscopy and field spectroscopy to describe the nature of glacier algae found at a glacier (Vadret da Morteratsch) of the European Alps and to evaluate their effect on the ice-albedo feedback. Among different algal species identified in the samples, we found a remarkable abundance of Ancylonema nordenskioeldii, a species that has never previously been quantitatively documented in the Alps and that dominates algal blooms on the Greenland Ice Sheet. Our results show that, at the end of the ablation season, the concentration of Ancylonema nordenskioeldii on the glacier surface is higher than that of other algal species (i.e. Mesotaenium berggrenii). Using field spectroscopy data, we identified a significant correlation between a reflectance ratio (750 nm/650 nm) and the algae concentration. This reflectance ratio could be useful for future mapping of glacier algae from remote sensing data exploiting band 6 (740 nm) and band 4 (665 nm) of the MultiSpectral Instrument (MSI) on board Sentinel-2 satellite. Here we show that the biological darkening of glaciers (i.e. the bioalbedo feedback) is also occurring in the European Alps, and thus it is a global process that must be taken into account when considering the positive feedback mechanisms related to glacier melting.

Original languageEnglish
Article number4739
Pages (from-to)4739
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 16 Mar 2020


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