The Sierra snowpack is California’s largest single reservoir of fresh water, accounting for 1/3 of the state’s water supply1. A state with a mediterranean climate, such as California, receives precipitation only during the short rain/snow season. During years of drought, when the average Californian frets about how little rain is falling, state water managers are keeping a worried eye on the amount of snow falling in the Sierra. Snow surveyors use remote sensing and field measurements to estimate the water content of the snowpack. The snow water equivalent on 1 April is used to compare snowpack water content across years.
The 2016-2017 snow year was a productive one, dumping near-record amounts of ‘Sierra cement’ on the mountains. (Skiers accustomed to the powder snows of Utah and Colorado often disparage the heavy snow in the Sierra, but Sierra cement carries a lot more water than powder so is much more beneficial to the state’s water supply). Most of that snow eventually melts, births streams and rivers, and flows from the mountains to lower elevations. After a good snow year, though, snow fields remain at high altitudes even during high summer. That definitely is the case around Lake Tahoe.
A few days ago my husband and I hiked from Carson Pass to Big Meadow, a through hike about 8 miles long. The hike goes through some gorgeous alpine meadow, with an absolutely stunning display of wildflowers. Even in late July we had to cross several streams and saw lots of snow.
If you look closely at the bottom photo, you may notice some faint pink streaks on the face of the snow field. This pink snow is called ‘watermelon snow’ because of the color. It is a phenomenon that occurs only at high altitudes or polar regions in the summer. Here’s a closer look, taken with a 70-200 mm lens that I rented for the week.
Given the color of those streaks, you’d think the organism producing it would be a red alga of some sort, wouldn’t you? I did, too, until I did some research and learned that it is a green alga! Chlamydomonas is a genus of unicellular green algae, most of which are indeed green in color because the only photosynthetic pigments they contain are chlorophylls. However, Chlamydomonas nivalis also contains reddish carotenoid pigments that serve to shield the cell’s photosynthetic pigments from excess radiation, which is intense at the high altitudes where the algae live. The pigments absorb heat, which increases the melting of snow in the immediate vicinity and provides liquid water that the algae require. Watermelon snow is found in alpine regions across the globe, although it isn’t known whether or not the same species of alga is responsible in all cases.
Cross-country skiers and snowshoers pass through these areas in the winter, and never report seeing watermelon snow. What happens to the cells in the winter? Do they die?
It turns out that the alga persists year-round, although in different life history stages. Given the inhospitality of their habitat, most of the life cycle involves waiting in a dormant stage, with a short burst of activity in the spring. The red form that we see in the summer is a dormant resting stage, having lost the pair of flagella possessed by swimming unicellular green algae. These spores, former zygotes resulting from fertilization, are non-motile and cannot escape to deeper snow to avoid UV radiation, so they use carotenoids to serve as sunscreens. They are not dead, though, and continue to photosynthesize all summer. They rest through the winter and germinate in the spring, stimulated into activity by increased light and nutrients, and flowing water. Germination involves the release of biflagellated cells that swim to the surface of the snow, where at least some of them function as gametes. Fertilization occurs, with the resulting zygotes soon after forming the resting spores that result in watermelon snow.
It may seem strange that this organism spends most of its time in a dormant stage, but this is not at all uncommon for things that live in hostile habitats. When conditions for life are difficult, the best strategy can be to hang out and wait until things get better. Chlamydomonas nivalis does this on a yearly basis, as do many of the marine unicellular algae. And some animals, namely tardigrades, can dry out and live for decades or perhaps even centuries in a state of suspended animation, returning to life when returned to water. As with many natural phenomena, this kind of lifestyle seems bizarre to us because it is so unlike how we do things. But if C. nivalis could observe and think about how we live, it would no doubt consider us inconceivably wasteful, expending enormous amounts of energy to remain active at times when, clearly, it would much more sensible (from C. nivalis‘s point of view) to sleep until better conditions return.