Breaking Ice: Microbiologist Studies Natural Cold Spots

  • Hank Edenborn at the entrance to the Trough Creek Ice Mine, Trough Creek State Park. Photo: Courtesy Hank Edenborn.

June 27, 2014

A hundred years ago, residents of one West Virginia town celebrated July Fourth by collecting ice from what’s called Ice Mountain and using it to chill ice cream and lemonade. While such cold spots in the middle of summer's heat aren't as much of a blessing and novelty in our modern era of easy access to electric refrigeration, they're nonetheless interesting to scientists like Hank Edenborn. The National Energy Technology Laboratory’s only microbiologist has been studying naturally icy sites and the microorganisms around them in Pennsylvania.

"I've been interested in extreme environments, no matter where I've been working," Edenborn says. "So that's led me to places in Pennsylvania that are extremely cold or extremely warm and I'm interested in the kind of bacteria that live there because they often possess unique characteristics." 

Like the ability to clean up pollution. 

"We look for unique organisms that can break down toxic material either in soil or water," he says. 

Naturally occurring ice mines and slopes are much more common in Europe, especially the Alps, Edenborn says. In Pennsylvania, the sites have disappeared over the years as humans have developed the land. 

But there are still a number of these natural refrigerators left. And when Edenborn visits, he's found evidence of lichens that don't normally occur in this part of the world, but which are found in Maine and Canada. 

"We don't know if these organisms were there when the glaciers moved into Pennsylvania, and when they retreated, they stayed where they were because it was still cold there," Edenborn says. "Or the lichens could have been introduced by bird droppings or something like that and then just lived." 

As Edenborn continues studying the lichen, and the ice, the rest of us can be content to get out in the woods and seemingly explore a different part of the world without having to get on a plane. 

Photo: Close-up of boreal lichens on rock in Rothrock State Forest. Photo: Hank Ebenhorn.