High in the Andes Mountains, dagger-shaped ice spires house thriving microbial communities, offering an oasis for life in one of Earth's harshest environments, as well as a possible analogue for life on other planets. The distinctive icy blade formations known as nieves penitentes (or, "penitent ones") are named for their resemblance to praying monks in white robes and form in cold, dry conditions at elevations above 13,000 feet. The penitentes, which can range from a few inches to 15 feet high, are found in some of the most hostile conditions on Earth, with extreme winds, temperature fluctuations and high UV radiation exposure due to the thin atmosphere. And yet, as a recently published study finds, these spires offer shelter for microbes by providing a water source in an otherwise arid, nutrient-poor environment. In March 2016, researchers traveled to Volcán Llullaillaco in Chile, the world's second-highest volcano. The two-week expedition into the arid landscape, planned in collaboration with their Chilean colleagues, was no easy feat. After reaching the penitente fields at 16,000 feet above sea level, the scientists noticed patches of red coloration, a telltale sign of microbial activity that has been previously observed in other snow and ice formations around the world. Upon bringing back samples for analysis, the researchers confirmed the presence of algal species Chlamydomonas and Chloromonas in the ice, the first documentation of snow algae or any other life forms in the penitentes.
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