Researchers from the University of Washington travelled aboard the icebreaker Oden in 2009. The trip was part of a research cruise to the North Pole. The vessel departed from Svalbard, a Norwegian island archipelago, and traveled to the Lomonosov ridge of Greenland. The research team was travelling to the Arctic to collect sea ice. When they arrived, they were surprised to find a huge bloom of frost flowers.
Home Sweet McMurdo
The same team also traveled to the other side of the planet in 2011, to McMurdo Station on Antarctica. The location was different, but the mission was the same: to collect sea ice. McMurdo Station is seen here from Hut Point Peninsula. On McMurdo Sound, temperatures would drop to as low as minus 31 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 35 degrees Celsius) during the expedition.
The hardy researchers braved the harsh weather in search of samples of sea ice, but the real prize was what was inside the ice: microbes. The team is trying to understand how microbes survive in extremely cold places. But collecting the sea ice often means "back-breaking work" to shovel away the snow cover and drill for ice cores.
"Shoveling is fine because it warms you up," said researcher Jeff Bowman. "Drilling the cores is miserable."
In this photo, Shelley Carpenter, the lab's manager, digs down to the sea ice in McMurdo Sound in Antarctica.
Sawing the cores
Inside these ice cores are microbes that thrive under some of the harshest conditions on Earth. Microbial communities inside the older ice cores, seen here, will be compared to microbial communities in younger sea ice. The day's haul of ice cores, sometimes weighing several hundred kilograms, must be transported for miles back to the lab.
Bowman is seen in the above photo sawing an ice core into smaller pieces.
"That's where it starts to get a little painful, a little cold, trying to handle these cores," Bowman said.
All in a day's work
Most of the sea ice analysis on the mission to Antarctica was performed at McMurdo Station. Researchers melt down the sea ice and collect the bacteria on a filter. That filter can then be transported back to their lab in Washington.
In the above photo, Bowman stands next to the ice cores from a site on McMurdo Sound. The red vehicle is one way the scientists move around the frozen continent.
Roaming out on the ice and headed toward open water, the researchers encountered a large number of penguins. The penguins spotted the scientists working on the ice from a long distance away. Intrigued, the penguins waddled over to see what was up.
"They were all over the place," Bowman said "They're pretty curious little animals."
The work of Bowman and colleagues went viral when their images of so-called frost flowers from their Arctic cruise were posted on the Internet. Frost flowers are delicate ice structures that are home to microbes that survive in the coldest of temperatures. They grow on new sea ice when the cold, moist air above becomes saturated. Frost then forms on imperfections on the icy surface, which seeds the flowers. Once seeded, frost flowers rise quickly as they wick moisture from the frozen surface, capturing salt and marine bacteria as they grow.
Frost flowers bloom in the waters of the Arctic and Antarctica, but little is known about their makeup at either pole.
Stop and smell the flowers
Doctoral student Jeff Bowman, seen here lying on young sea ice in the Arctic, was tasked with collecting samples of frost flowers during the research mission. Bowman likes to whitewater kayak in his spare time, and he's wearing his kayaking Gortex dry suit. The suit didn't help much against the Arctic temperatures of 10 F (minus 12 C) while he was there, so he usually wore a parka over the suit until it was time to get on the ice. His suit does keep him dry though, which is critical in case the ice isn't as thick as it looks.
A cool dip
After lying on his stomach for an hour and a half and barely collecting any ice from the frost flowers, Bowman got impatient.
"Well, let's just go for it," Bowman said at the time. "I bit the bullet and moved out into the center of the ice, took a shovel and just cleared the area around me to collect the samples."
To unfreeze life's secrets, Bowman and his colleagues have learned to grow frost flowers in a freezer lab back at the University of Washington.