Snow is glowing in the Russian Arctic

Alexander Semenov photo

High in the Russian Arctic, at a remote field station on the shores of the White Sea, biologist Vera Emelianenko set out for a walk on a frigid December night. With her were Mikhail Neretin, the son of the station’s molecular biologist, and a couple dogs: a giant schnauzer and soft-coated Wheaten terrier.

Trudging along the icy embankments of the tidal zone in fierce Arctic winds, Neretin spotted a blue illumination in a snowbank. Had Emelianenko dropped her phone?

As they walked over to investigate, their footsteps created streaks of ethereal blue. “They were like blue Christmas lights in the snow,” Emelianenko says.

She bent down to scoop up a handful. With a gentle squeeze, the snowball glowed brighter. The dogs left a glowing trail as they raced ahead, as though the Northern Lights had seeped from sky to snow…

The next day, Emelianenko slipped a glowing snowball under a stereo microscope to try to identify the bioluminescent culprit. As she waited for the ice to melt away, she prodded miniscule detritus with a needle to no avail. But then Emelianenko spotted some copepods, tiny aquatic crustaceans, in the slushy petri dish. When she poked them, they shone a faint blue.

This may be the first documented explanation for glowing snow in the Arctic, which has been observed occasionally by researchers over the years but not been rigorously tested.

Cripes! This is the sort of tale that makes me want to dash off and participate, somehow, anyhow…aid this research. Even if I’m just the guy with the shovel.

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