I have returned to Vancouver, to settle in and enjoy my new “Big Book of Mandalas Colouring Book” before starting PDP next month. The weather is wet and drizzly, with not a snow patch to be found. And of course my social media feeds are filling up with photos of picturesque snowy landscapes.
Snow is a pretty wondrous thing. There is the poetic beauty to the world wrapped up in a white blanket, and the characteristic silence after a fresh snowfall, as the loosely packed flakes absorb sound waves. But give snow time to settle, and you start to see some fascinating things settle in.
Algae can grow in snow. With over 100 reported snow algae species, these organisms are responsible for swathes of coloured snow, from green or grey to pink or red. The most common snow algae is Chlamydomonas nivalis, sometimes called “Watermelon Snow” for its distinctive pink colouring and name-appropriate smell. The colour is due to carotenoid pigments, which protect the exposed algae from harmful UV rays: which you’ll know to be very important if you have ever gone outside to play in the snow for several hours on a sunny day, as I have, and experienced the horror that is a sunburn from an entire world of reflective surfaces. C. nivalis grows in summertime high in the mountains. Recently, it has gained popularity in the cosmetic industry for its “anti aging properties,” namely those same sun-blocking carotenoids we were just talking about.
I should disclose that it is recommended you do NOT eat any Watermelon Snow. Despite its tempting colour and fragrance, botanist Joyce Gellhorn warns that it’s a laxative. Furthermore, not just algae grows in the snow: molds and bacteria (especially cyanobacteria) may be present, not all of which are pleasant to digest.
However, there are critters who enjoy the various snow flora: springtails! Specifically Hypogastruna nivicola, or snow flea. Like other springtails, H. nivicola is tiny and prefers living in damp areas where the detritus is soft and easy to munch on. Unlike other springtails or even many other insects, it also prefers the sub-zero temperatures. Researchers at Queen’s University discovered the anti-freeze protein responsible, and there is hope that further research may lead to advances in storage of transplant organs and even higher quality ice cream.
There are other springtails besides H. nivicola who enjoy prancing through the snow. Those belonging to the Sminthuridae family are rounder and more colourful than their cousin, reminding me of conspicuous snow bunnies.
Snow is an ecosystem, with producers and consumers. Depending on where it falls, snow can have a whole year to establish an ecosystem or only a matter of days. Beyond the springtails there are larger insects such as scorpion flies (Boreidae) and rove beetles (Staphylinidae), and beyond them larger animals such as voles, hares, and owls (just to name a few).
It is marvelous stuff, snow.
Just don’t eat the pink stuff.
Or the yellow, or… you know what? Just avoid eating coloured snow.