I love to explore the beauty of nature and I am always on the hunt for interesting images from nature to share with my husband Nazim who is a painter. In my quest for just such imagery, I came across some photos in an article entitled “Suddenly There’s a Meadow in the Ocean with ‘Flowers’ Everywhere,” by Robert Krulwich and there I found some absolutely wondrous images that I simply had to share!
Krulwich describes the scenario that led to the capturing of the images which took place when 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 could see what appeared to be little crystal flowery things, growing on the frozen sea.
Out of no where some 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 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.
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.
Jeff’s professor believed 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.” 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 their 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.
Photos courtesy of Matthias Wietz