Frost flowers are a beautiful and bizarre phenomenon that supports life.
They grow in the Arctic and other places with warm water in a very cold atmosphere. It must be cold enough for water to turn from gas to solid, skipping the liquid phase.
When those conditions exist, the frost flowers pull water from their roots up into their stems. When that water reaches the stem, it quickly freezes because of the cold air. Since plant stems are thin, ice crystals that form will push their way out through the stem's walls.
If you don't live in an area with conditions capable of producing frost flowers, chances are you've never seen one. Jeff S. Bowman, assistant professor at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, UCSD, who has studied and researched this phenomenon, has seen plenty.
"It's ice, structurally it's very much like the frost that forms on your window, but functionally it's very much like a real flower, with its roots down in the soil drawing moisture up and bringing it up onto the surface," Bowman said.
The frost flowers pull up the sea water from below, creating the same vascular structure. This makes these dainty ice structures bloom just like a real flower. However, they don't last as long as real flowers. These structures are very short-lived.
"Generally, the frost flowers don't melt; they are either covered by snow or are destroyed by ice rafts," Bowman said.
Each spiky petal has been found to house microorganisms. During the flower's bloom, bacteria finds its way inside. These microbe communities are mobile within the ice flower. The bacteria live in this environment, which is saltier, colder and brighter than what is typical for this type of organism.
"There are many different kinds of bacteria in frost flowers. Some frost flowers seem to reflect the community of the underlying seawater; we've observed this in Antarctica and Greenland," Bowman said.
The larger ones are home to more bacteria, but the concentration of bacteria is the same as a smaller flower.
Arctic sea ice #frostflowers in bloom at University of Manitoba lab https://t.co/xnerYIUx8O pic.twitter.com/ced608qcgm— Bylands Garden Girl (@BylandsGardener) January 22, 2016
"Frost flowers are usually about an inch in diameter, though we have observed frost flowers that are up to 3 inches in diameter," Bowman said.
Bowman and his colleagues successfully made frost flowers in a sterile lab to study them more easily.
"Although frost flowers are very abundant in the Arctic and Antarctic, getting to them isn't easy," said Bowman.
This Intricate phenomenon forms over very thin newly forming sea ice. The ice underneath them is often too thin to walk across and prone to drifting with the wind.
With the warming of the poles, there will be bigger stretches of Arctic water favorable for them to grow on.
(Thumbnail Photo/Janne Kahila)