Frost Flowers Blooming in the Arctic Ocean are Found to be Teeming with Life
These beautiful and other-worldly photographs of ice were taken last year by University of Washington graduate student Jeff Bowman and his professor Jody Deming while they worked on a study combining oceanography, microbiology, and planetary sciences in the central Arctic Ocean as part of the Integrated Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) program. Their single focus was the study of frost flowers, a strange phenomenon where frost grows from imperfections in the surface ice amid extreme sub-zero temperatures nearing -22C or -7.6F, forming spiky structures that have been found to house microorganisms. In fact, the bacteria found in the frost flowers is much more dense than in the frozen water below it, meaning each flower is essentially a temporary ecosystem, not unlike a coral reef. Via IGERT:
Around their research icebreaker in the central Arctic Ocean new ice grows on long open cracks that network amongst the thick floes of pack ice. Abruptly the surface of this new ice changes texture. The cold, moist air above the open cracks becomes saturated and frost begins to form wherever an imperfection can be found on the ice surface. From these nucleation points the flower-like frost structures grow vertically, quickly rising to centimeters in height. The hollow tendrils of these “frost flowers” begin to wick moisture from the ice surface, incorporating salt, marine bacteria, and other substances as they grow. The fog dissipates and the Arctic sun lights the surface of the frost flowers, initiating a cascade of chemical reactions. These reactions can produce formaldehyde, deplete ozone, and actually alter the chemical composition of the lower atmosphere. […] Bowman and Deming have discovered that bacteria are consistently more abundant in frost flowers than in sea ice. Since microscopic pockets in sea ice are known to support an active community of psychrophiles (cold-loving microorganisms), even in the coldest months of the year, these results are encouraging.
Bowman and Deming are currently building an ultra-clean chamber where they can grow artificial frost flowers and hope that their research leads to a better understanding of how life might be able to survive in extreme conditions elsewhere in the universe. Amazing! Photos by Matthias Wietz.