Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Watermelon Snow in California

This phenomenon is common during the summer months in the Sierra Nevada of California where snow has lingered from winter storms, mainly at altitudes of 10,000 to 12,000 feet. Compressing the snow with your boot leaves a distinct foot print the color of watermelon pulp. The snow even has a fresh watermelon scent and is sometimes called "watermelon snow." 

It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that the unusual phenomenon was finally attributed to high concentrations of microscopic algae. In the high mountain ranges of the western United States at least 60 different species of snow algae have been identified, but only a few kinds have been reported from the Sierra Nevada. One of the most common species of snow algae in California, and the one responsible for pink snow, is Chlamydomonas nivalis. This unicellular organism is a member of the diverse green algae Division Chlorophyta and contains a bright red carotenoid pigment in addition to chlorophyll. Unlike most species of fresh-water algae, it is cryophilic (cold-loving) and thrives in freezing water. Its scientific surname, nivalis, is from Latin and refers to snow. Compressing pink snow with your boot increases the density of the red cells and heightens the color.
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