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Photo: Frost Flowers in Bloom on Arctic Sea Ice
"Frost flowers" -- delicate ice structures that bloom on the surface of the polar oceans and are home to microbes -- seen on the Arctic Ocean.
Credit: Matthias Wietz.

In the dead of winter, blooming flowers can be found in the Arctic Ocean. These aren't garden-variety azaleas, of course, but so-called frost flowers.

Scientists from the University of Washington trekked to Arctic ice fields and captured a spectacular photo of an array of frost flowers. Frost flowers are delicate ice structures that are home to microbes that survive in the coldest of temperatures that the Arctic has to offer. Inside the frost, researchers look for clues about how life survives under harsh conditions. What they learn might guide the search for possible extraterrestrial life, or answer questions about how life formed on Earth.

The frost flowers grow on new sea ice. When the cold, moist air above becomes saturated, frost forms on imperfections on the icy surface. Frost on these imperfections seeds the flowers, which rise as they wick moisture from the frozen surface, capturing salt and marine bacteria as they grow.

Frost flower blooms flourish in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica as well, but little is known about the physical, chemical or biological nature of frost flowers at either pole. Scientists have learned to grow frost flowers in a freezer lab at the University of Washington to learn more about how these stunning structures form and interact with the environment.

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