The growth of dark algae on the Greenland ice sheet may cause it melt “faster and faster”, scientists have warned.
Unlike white ice, dark algae absorbs the sun’s heat, accelerating the melting process.
Scientists, who have begun a new five-year research project, called Black and Bloom, to investigate the trend, admit they are “very worried” by the problem.
The Greenland ice sheet, which is up to 3km thick and spans 1.71 million km², would raise sea levels by seven metres if it all melted.
Professor Martyn Tranter of Bristol University, who is leading the project, told the BBC: “People are very worried about the possibility that the ice sheet might be melting faster and faster in the future.
“We suspect that in a warming climate these dark algae will grow over larger and larger parts of the Greenland ice sheet and it might well be that they will cause more melting and an acceleration of sea level rise.
“Our project is trying to understand just how much melting might occur.”
Dr Joe Cook, a glacial microbiologist at Sheffield University, described Greenland as a “living landscape”.
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“This is an extremely difficult place for anything to live but, as we look around us, all this darkness we can see on the ice surface is living – algae, microbes, living and reproducing in the ice sheet and changing its colour,” he said.
“We know they’re very widespread and we know that they’re very dark and we know that that’s accelerating melt but that’s not something that’s built into any of our climate projections – and that’s something that needs to change.”
Similarly, it has been reported that plant life has been growing at rapid rates on Antarctica as a result of global warming.
Researchers say they found a “sharp increase” in the biological activity of moss in Earth’s southernmost continent in the last 50 years.