21st Feb 2013

A Meadow of Frost Flowers

Just before dawn broke one morning over the Arctic Ocean, the temperature dropped and University of Washington graduate student Jeff Bowman spotted something otherworldly from his ship—little icy flowers, blooming up from the frozen sea. They were like snowflakes, delicately protruding up from the thin ice “like a meadow spreading off in all directions,” Bowman recalls. “Every available surface was covered with them.” These are called frost flowers, though they’re not really flowers—they’re natural ice sculptures that form when the air is colder and dryer than the thin layer of ice covering the sea. The air teases up moisture from imperfections in the ice, which becomes supersaturated and condenses back into ice, creating frosty, feathery spikes that blossom like flowers. The flowers are about three times saltier than the ocean below, yet each one houses around a million bacteria. This is rare for such incredibly salty, brutally cold conditions, but it’s strangely beautiful—each delicate frost flower is essentially a temporary ecosystem, until the sun rises and melts them away again.

(Image Credit: Jeff Bowman)

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