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'It's happening': Ice worms emerge in Pacific Northwest glaciers

AccuWeather logo AccuWeather 7/30/2021 Monica Danielle

"It's happening," scientist Scott Hotaling told a reporter for OPB as he gestured across Paradise Glacier high up on Mount Rainier in Washington.

He was referencing hundreds of thousands of tiny, black worms emerging from a vast expanse of white snow.

Ice worms were first discovered in 1887 on Alaska's Muir Glacier. They have since been spotted on most of the coastal glaciers in Alaska, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. It was an exciting discovery because, for the longest time, biologists considered high-altitude glaciers sterile places where life was essentially impossible.

"I think they're like the mascot of mountain glaciers in the West," Hotaling told AccuWeather about ice worms. They're incredibly cool, they're incredibly abundant and they're the largest organism on Earth that spends its whole life cycle in ice. "When they're around, there are hundreds per square meter. You cannot walk without stepping on, it's a very dramatic thing when they are present."

a close up of a snow covered slope © Provided by AccuWeather
Ice worms emerge on Paradise Glacier, Mount Rainier, Washington. (Scott Hotaling)

The inky, black ice worms are only about an inch long and are distant cousins to earthworms. Instead of dirt, these worms wiggle through glacial ice eating snow algae, bacteria and anything else that ends up on the snow.

They may spend their entire lives in snow and ice, but ice worms can't survive subfreezing temperatures. Hotaling has conducted thermal testing and says the ice worms can survive comfortably for at least a day or two in temperatures as high as 75 degrees Fahrenheit (around 24 degrees Celsius), and although they thrive at temperatures around 32 degrees Fahrenheit (zero degrees Celsius), they die when temperatures drop below that threshold.

"It's kind of hilarious in a way that this is worm is living in ice and can't actually survive freezing, but it's also really interesting ecologically because they are living extremely close to their lower thermal limit," Hotaling said.

Ice worms typically emerge in the afternoon and at dusk. The worms have barely been studied so researchers aren't sure why, but Hotaling says they are extremely tolerant of UV rays and thinks they come up to get heat energy from the sun and find food.

"They actually have a lot of pigment, which I think is largely to absorb heat from solar radiation and that's why they come out to be at the surface, get some heat," he told AccuWeather, adding that it "helps their metabolism and various biochemistry while they're also feeding in the soft upper layer of snow."

NASA finds all of this very interesting. The agency awarded Dr. Dan Shain, an evolutionary biologist at Rutgers University who researches the survival of the ice worm in extreme conditions, more than $200,000 toward his research. Ultimately, his findings could offer clues as to how life can exist in extreme environments, maybe unlocking mysteries about possible life on other planets or chilly moons.

"If we're interested in looking for life on ice-enshrouded worlds, then understanding how life on Earth has evolved and adapted to living under those conditions is an important thing for NASA to know," Michael New, an astrobiology scientist at NASA, told NPR. "We try to understand the distribution and extent of life on the Earth in order to inform our ability to look for life elsewhere."

That's what excites mountaineer Adam Palmer, who teaches high school students alpine climbing in British Columbia and regularly sees ice worms.

"I got fascinated with these extremophiles that live in this environment," he told AccuWeather. "There's got to be life on Europa, on the moons of Jupiter under the ice, we have ice worms here on Earth!" He added that with that thought, he "went down the rabbit hole on ice worms and became obsessed."

Palmer takes videos of the tiny worms every chance he gets. He says the worms even remind him of aliens. "When I see the ice worms, I always think of this like alien oil...They're basically like little stringy, black, oily worms. They're very, very small."

Hotaling told AccuWeather that's also a large part of what he finds so fascinating about ice worm research. "Throughout the history of scientific research, we have learned a ton from organisms living at the bounds of what seems to be possible."

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