Krulwich describes at ‘Krulwich Wonders,’ a scenario where a Grad student named Jeff Bowman was on the deck of a ship; with a University of Washington biology team on their way back from the North Pole. Apparently it was bitter cold and as the dawn broke, this young man, Jeff could see what appeared to be little cyrstal flowery things, growing on the frozen sea.
This sight must have been astounding, as out of no where these delicate, flower like snowflakes forms, appeared as if they were growing like flowers in the dry, cold air “like a meadow spreading off in all directions.”
Apparently every available surface seemed to be covered with them. He needless to say asked people in his group what they were. And the answer he received was “Frost Flowers!”
They aren’t really flowers but are more like ice sculptures that grow on the border between the sea and air. Krulwich reported that, “On Sept. 2, 2009, the day Jeff’s colleague Matthias Wietz took these pictures, the air was extremely cold and extremely dry, colder than the ocean surface. When the air gets that different from the sea, the dryness pulls moisture off little bumps in the ice, bits of ice vaporize, the air gets humid — but only for a while. The cold makes water vapor heavy. The air wants to release that excess weight, so crystal by crystal, air turns back into ice, creating delicate, feathery tendrils that reach sometimes two, three inches high, like giant snowflakes. The sea, literally, blossoms.”
Krulwich continued in his post that, “Jeff’s professor Jody Deming believes that as the poles warm, there will be more and more of these meadows, because there will be more and more open sea that turns to thin ice in winter. But as beautiful as they are, scientists prize frost flowers because they are so salty. These blossoms suck up seawater, concentrate the salt and have three times the salinity of the ocean. You could think of them as beautiful pickles.”
Krulwich added, “If you take a frozen flower and let it melt,” and that’s what Jeff and his colleagues did …
… what you get is about “one to two millilitres of water,” Jeff shared. That’s simply very salty little puddles.
And yet, he said, “when he and his colleagues checked, they found each frost flower housed about a million creatures. ‘That’s 10 to the sixth! A million bacteria.”
Did that surprise you? Krulwich asked Jeff. “Aren’t bacteria everywhere? ‘No,’ he said, ‘ not when the environment is so extremely salty, not when these bacteria are sitting on the icy surface exposed to ferociously cold air, much colder than they’re used to in the sea, and not when they are bathed in sunshine, which they don’t see that often and shouldn’t like.”
Apparently these amazingly adaptable bacteria are happy in their salty, sunny, freezing environment, doing they’re thing — well, that’s the next question: What are they doing? Professor Deming and her team are eager to figure that out. Could they be ingesting something? Exhaling something? If these frost flower meadows are going to spread, that might be interesting to find out.
I found the imagery fascinating and I am happy to be warm and dry and enjoying learning about this phenomena from my comfy desk chair on my big MAC desktop screen. Hope you have enjoyed this interesting story as well!
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Photos courtesy of Matthias Wietz