Frost Flowers Foster Microbes

Delicate ice-crystal structures called frost flowers arise on the surface of newly formed sea ice under very cold conditions and harbor millions of active microbes.

Discovering the abundant microbe communities within frost flowers raises many new questions for researchers such as: "Do the microbes alter the contaminants in these icy habitats?" "Do they become windborne during storms, traveling great distances?" and "How have such extremophiles evolved in polar regions?"

Early arctic and Antarctic explorers such as Hudson, Cook, Weddell and Ross observed frost flowers, but only recently have scientists learned how they influence the reflection of sunlight off the surface of the ice and concentrate chemical contaminants from the atmosphere.

For this research, graduate students Jeff Bowman and Marcela Ewert at the University of Washington, collaborating with international teams, probed the flowers' inhabitants. Although the behavior of microbes at temperatures as low as -15 degrees Celsius is understood reasonably well, little is known about what happens at the colder temperatures that lead to frost flower formation. Ongoing changes to the Arctic Ocean's ice cover include the formation of more, new, thin ice during winter and thus more extensive fields of frost flowers, making these icy habitats of increasing interest.

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