We first heard of nieves penitentes in scientific literature written by Charles Darwin back in the 1800s, but most of us have never heard of this strange term.
This is because nieves penitentes, strange blades of ice found in remote places, were discovered first in the Andes which are difficult and extreme and therefore, extremely hard to venture into, especially for an extended period of time for study.
However, a group of brave scientists made the trip into Chile's Volcán Llullaillaco, recording their findings in the journal Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research. "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."
Nieves penitentes are long blades of hardened snow and ice ranging anywhere from a few inches to 16 feet long. They are found in cold, dry regions about 13,000 feet, the most extreme, high-altitude environments on Earth.
Since UV radiation is high and humidity is low, the temperature changes drastically and the winds are extreme, making it difficult for life to exist.
These snow formations usually form pointed toward our sun, and they were named nieves penitentes – meaning “penitent snow” – because of their resemblance to praying monks wearing white robes.
What the scientists found was astounding: the penitente fields, found at a height of over 16,000 feet, had red ice patches. This means that microscopic life exists! Further analysis showed that the patches held a community of snow algae closely related to that which has been found in 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.
This is the first time life has been recorded in these formations. Since they are believed to exist on other bodies within the solar system, including Pluto and Jupiter's moon Europa, this could provide insight into extra-terrestrial life.
The scientists say its meaning is significant when we consider the search for alien life."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."Lara Vimercati, lead author of the study, said in a statement:
"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." They found nieves penitentes near the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on Earth; moreover, it’s landscape is thought to be most similar to Mars.
These discoveries giving insight into life existing on such harsh environments help scientists understand what types of places it could show up in the rest of the solar system. Currently, researchers strongly believe that Jupiter’s moon could be harboring microscopic lifeforms in its subsurface, saline ocean since they’ve found thousands of species beneath Antarctica’s 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."