In the middle of the Atacama Desert in Chile, a strange phenomenon takes place – the formation of huge dagger-shaped blades of ice. These structures, also known as penitentes, appear in areas of high altitude in cold, dry environments, and it seems that the wilderness of the Atacama desert is the perfect home for them. Although their appearance makes them look intimidating, these ice formations are inhabited by invisible microbial life forms.
A team of researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder explored one of the highest volcanoes in the world, Chile’s Volcán Llullaillaco, which presents several penitentes at its peak, and discovered that microbes live within the icy structures, at approximately 5,000 meters above the sea level.
Lara Vimercati, a microbial biology researcher that was part of the team, said: “Snow algae have been commonly found throughout the cryosphere on both ice and snow patches, but our finding demonstrated their presence for the first time at the extreme elevation of a hyper-arid site.”
Microbial Life Thrives Within The Ice Formations In The Middle Of The Atacama Desert
According to Vimercati, one of the most exciting things about the discovery was that the snow algae present at the site are similar to those found in alpine and polar environments.
The algae were discovered after the scientists noticed that the ice had red patches, which is a clear indicator of the presence of microbes inside the formations. The researchers took back some samples to analyze in the lab and identified the microbes, which belong to the algal genera Chlamydomonas and Chloromonas. According to the team, this is the first time ever that scientists discovered microbial life in penitentes.
In the paper published in the Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research, the scientists offered a brief explanation of this bizarre phenomenon: “Given the harshness of the environments where they are found, nieves penitentes may represent oases for life, because, along with fumaroles [gassy vent-like openings in Earth’s crust], they represent intermittent water sources in these very arid environments.”