Frost Flowers Bloom Beautifully in Arctic Ocean

In just a few hours, Jeff Bowman, a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington, watched the Arctic Ocean transform from heavy ice to a meadow of frost flowers.

"It was amazing," said Bowman, who witnessed the bloom during an expedition in 2009. "I had never heard of these things before. … Seeing them out there for the first time and realizing how ubiquitous these structures are to the new sea ice environment really blew me away."

Image credit: Matthias Wietz

Frost flowers are ice crystals that form in the frigid air above the ocean surface, and they are not rare in the Arctic. According to Deep Sea News, the air must be -7.6 degrees Fahrenheit, with calm winds so the flowers don't blow away. They usually survive no longer than two weeks.

From a physical standpoint the ice clusters are not that different from frost that would form in any cold environment. However, they contain a surprising amount of salt and bacteria.

"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," NPR's Robert Krulwich wrote.

Image credit: Matthias Wietz

Bowman said he often tastes the flowers to determine whether he has found a good patch.

"When they are so salty that you can't hold it in your mouth, you've found a good one," he told ABC News.

Each flower contains one to two million bacteria and scientists are studying which bacteria are there, how they got there and what they are doing.

"It's an extremely stressful environment for organisms to live in," Bowman said. "The bacteria have mechanisms for dealing with different stresses and they may give us clues as to how our own bodies deal with different stresses."

Image credit: Matthias Wietz