Weird 'Praying Monk' Ice Daggers Host Life in One of Earth's Highest, Most Extreme Environments

Strange blades of ice found on Earth's second-highest volcano are home to a community of microscopic life, scientists have discovered. Nieves penitentes, snow formations found high up in the Andes, were found to host snow algae. This is the first time life has been recorded in these formations. This could provide an insight into extraterrestrial life, as these formations are believed to exist on other bodies within the solar system, including Pluto and Jupiter's moon Europa.

Nieves penitentes are elongated blades of hardened snow and ice found in some of the most extreme, high-altitude environments on Earth—cold and dry regions above 13,000 feet. In these spots, UV radiation is high, humidity is low, winds are extreme and the temperature fluctuates dramatically. That makes it difficult for life to exist.

Nieves penitentes range from just a few inches in height up to 16 feet and are normally oriented towards our sun. They got their name—which means "penitent snow"—because they resemble praying monks wearing white robes.

Despite first being mentioned in scientific literature by Charles Darwin in the 1800s, nieves penitentes have not been studied extensively, owing mostly to their extreme and remote location in the Andes Mountains.

Nieves penitentes
Nieves penitentes in the Andes G. Zimmerman and S. K. Schmidt/Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research

In a study published in the journal Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research, researchers traveled to Chile's Volcán Llullaillaco, where nieves penitentes form in order to study these frozen daggers. "This is a very remote area that's difficult to access," study co-author Steve Schmidt, from the University of Colorado Boulder, said in a statement. "The entire back of one of our pickup trucks had to be filled with barrels of drinking water. It's no trivial thing to go out there, and that's one of the reasons these formations haven't been studied much."

The penitente fields, found at a height of over 16,000 feet, were found to have red ice patches—a sign that microscopic life exists in the ice. Analysis revealed the patches contained a community of snow algae that is closely related to other alpine and polar environments.

"In this environment penitentes provide both water and shelter from harsh winds, high UV radiation and thermal fluctuations, creating an oasis in an otherwise extreme landscape," the team wrote.

Nieves penitentes
Photographs of Llullaillaco penitente field, including close-ups of the red patches where snow algae was found to be living. G. Zimmerman and S. K. Schmidt/Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research

The discovery is important as it has implications for the search for alien life in our solar system and beyond, the scientists say. "Intriguingly, recent planetary investigations have suggested the existence of penitente-like structures on other planetary bodies of our solar system," the team concludes. "Therefore, penitentes and the harsh environment that surrounds them provide a new terrestrial analog for astrobiological studies of life beyond Earth."

In a statement, Lara Vimercati, lead author of the study, 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." The spot where nieves penitentes are found is close to the Atacama Desert, which is one of the driest places on Earth and is the landscape that is thought to be most similar to Mars.

Understanding what life can exist in the most extreme environments on Earth could help scientists understand the type of places where it may emerge elsewhere in the solar system. At present, researchers believe microscopic lifeforms may be living in the subsurface, saline ocean of Europa, Jupiter's icy moon. This is on the basis that we have found thousands of species of microbes deep beneath Antarctica's icy surface.

"Our study shows how no matter how challenging the environmental conditions, life finds a way when there is availability of liquid water," Vimercati said.

Schmidt added: "We're generally interested in the adaptations of organisms to extreme environments. This could be a good place to look for upper limits of life."

This story has been updated to include additional information about life in extreme environments.