An Antarctic Rainbow

Disclaimer: The following article is the result of expert procrastination, very close to journal article revision deadlines… It first appeared in The Ashburton Guardian, just before the academic article was sent. 

Antarctica is often associated with the colour white: white ice, white snow, whiteout. In fact, there are a whole spectrum of colours that belong to the continent, if only you know where to look.

Red is the colour of passion, and several of the seven states with a territorial claim to the Antarctic remain passionate about their national links with the southern continent. Red adorns the walls of the Argentinian bases, and appears on the union flag that flies outside Port Lockroy, the British Post Office. When you realise that Chile, Argentina and the UK all have overlapping claims to the Antarctic Peninsula, the boldness of this red takes on a new dimension.

Red and orange also belong in the fiery sunsets of the south. Travel past the polar circle at 66 degrees and you’ll have just one day and one night, but enjoy a lingering sunset that lasts for weeks, shading from golden salmon through to embers of fire.

For purple, one needs only to follow the sunset to its final stages, then look to the famous fathers whose colonies dot the inland iceshelves as they huddle against winter: the beak of an emperor penguin is marked by a rich violet stripe. That beak fasts throughout the months of darkness, as the birds incubate their eggs on their feet and wait for the return of their mates in the spring.

Pink makes an appearance too: it marks the guano of all animals that eat krill, that food chain staple guzzled by penguins, seals and whales alike. The pinker the deposits, the more plentiful the krill, and the healthier the oceans.

Green can be found in those oceans as well, with phytoplankton blooms providing nourishment for the krill. On land, green appears in the snow algae and the two native plants. For those lucky enough to spend a winter on the continent, green is also the colour of the aurora australis, the southern lights that dance across the darkened skies.

Finally, there is blue. In the Antarctic, there are not enough words to describe the many shades that exist; from the sky, to the sea, to the ice, to the shadows, to the sheen on a whale’s back as it rises to take a breath. There is the rich cobalt that shines out from within glacial cracks, and the luminous turquoise on the underside of icebergs. There is the powder blue of a crisp, clear day, and the ruddy grey smudge where sea meets sky away on the misty horizon.

Just as white light is made up of all the colours of the spectrum, the white continent of Antarctica is also made up of a whole rainbow of colours and life.

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