Watermelon Snow Citizen Science


1) Download EpiCollect5 on your smartphone or tablet. Click Add Project, and search for “Watermelon snow sightings”

2) When you head out to the mountains, bring your phone. If you see watermelon snow, open our project in EpiCollect5 and follow the prompts, it’s pretty straightforward. You can fill out the form without cell service, as is often the case in the mountains. The form collects GPS coordinates, photographs, and other basic info; it takes less than five minutes to complete.

3) When you return from your adventure, upload your data to the cloud. You can view and download the same data that we see here.

Video by James Frystak


We are only beginning to understand microbial “dark matter”—the unseen majority of life on earth. Microscopic single-celled organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses are the unseen architects of our environment, responsible for the air we breathe, nutrient cycling in the environment, and maintaining health (or causing disease) in humans.

At a glance, snow may appear to be devoid of life, but it is in fact teeming with microscopic cells. We only notice in the summer months, when blooms of microscopic single-celled algae color the snow a pinkish red. Also known as watermelon snow, these algae form vast expanses of red snow across arctic and alpine regions of our globe. The algae support a diverse ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and ciliates –many of which are unnamed species new to science. These microbes darken the snow and absorb more solar energy, thus speeding snow melt and adding a positive feedback loop to global warming. Learn more about this fascinating microbiome here.

This living snow is extremely difficult to study for logistical reasons: the blooms occur in the arctic or Antarctic, or high in the mountains far from civilization. Because of this difficulty, we know next to nothing about this living snow: are the cells hitchhiking in the wind, or swimming up through the melting snow? What predators, parasites, or symbionts might lurk in this microcosm? How do they survive in this harsh environment of freezing, intense sunlight, and low nutrients? How might they impact, or be impacted by global warming?

To start with, we need to know where and when watermelon snow occurs. You can help us track watermelon snow by reporting sightings on the mobile app EpiCollect5. Simply bring your phone next time you head off to the mountains, and if you find watermelon snow ping in the coordinates and a few photos. Once uploaded to the cloud, this will give us valuable data to answer questions about this enigmatic microbiome.



Follow our blog, Facebook, Lynne’s Twitter, and Kurt’s Twitter. Educators and other interested parties might find this poster a useful starting point for learning more about watermelon snow. We welcome any feedback or comments, email cengstro@sfu.ca for more information.

If you are interested in collecting samples, our friends at Western Washington University are looking for volunteers, please visit their website for more information.