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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

December 26, 2012 at 7:00 AM

Frost flowers: beauty in the far north

Jeff Bowman had never heard of frost flowers when he decided to study them to earn his PhD in oceanography at the University of Washington. But, as it turned out, they are a ubiquitous, spectacular marvel at both poles, forming whenever the conditions are just right, with superchilled air hitting newly formed sea ice. The result is salt crystals in the seawater forming structures in the frozen sea water, atop the sea ice: frost flowers. Acres and acres of them.

Frost_Flowers_Black_Ice.jpg

Photo by Matthias Wietz

Jeff Bowman was on an icebreaker in 2009 near the North Pole when his research team encountered miles and miles of new ice, covered with these frost flowers, each about one to two inches tall. The ice appears black to the eye, enhancing the visual effect. While it looks like rippled open water, the newly-formed sea ice is about three inches thick.

The team disembarked to collect samples of some of the flowers, which, it turned out, are teeming with bacteria. They also had surprising chemical properties, including very high levels of mercury, and formaldehyde, Bowman said.

His research team is still trying to understand just what these frost flowers are up to, chemically and biologically. But one thing that seems certain is whatever these flowers are, there are going to be many more of them as the area of perennial sea ice in the arctic shrinks. That means new sea ice forming on open water, blooming with frost flowers.

For more on Bowman’s research, here is a link to his blog.

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