Posted on February 7, 2014
Trust me, it's a thing! In Cordova, Alaska, the first full weekend of February is the Iceworm Festival, and one of the events is the crowning of Miss Iceworm. Other events include everything from an arts and crafts show and photography competition to a cook off and an ice cream feed. There are competitions in oyster shucking, ping pong, dodgeball, and cribbage; there is a parade, a variety show and a fireworks spectacular!
Cordova bills itself as Alaska's “hidden treasure.” It is a small city on the ocean (the bit of ocean called the Prince William Sound), near the mouth of the Copper River. It's a fishing town, but of course it wants to attract tourists, too. In May, when millions of migrating shorebirds stop near Cordova to rest and feed, Cordova hosts a Shorebird Festival; in the winter, the town fights off the winter blues by hosting the Iceworm Festival!
Some of the events at the festival seem particularly Alaskan. Instead of a “Polar Bear Plunge,” in which the challenge is to “just” jump into the icy ocean waters, Cordova locals have a Survival Suit Race. Locals race to the docks, hurry to don their survival gear, and then dive in and continue racing to a life raft. The Blessing of the Fleet, the purchasing of Shaving Permits from the Keystone Cops, and the Iceworm Tail Hunt are events that make me wonder: what goes on in Cordova this weekend?
And just what are ice worms?
There are a few species of annelid (segmented) worms that spend their entire lives in glacial ice. These ice worms were discovered in Alaska in the late 1800s, but they have since been found in glaciers in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon as well. Interestingly enough, no ice worms have been found elsewhere in the world, even though there are other glacial regions!
You have probably guessed that ice worms have very special adaptations that allow them to live in such a cold environment. Of course, this means that they can't live in a warmer place. At 5 degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit), their cell membranes fall apart, and the worms seem to melt. And, trust me, 5 degrees C (41 degrees F) is NOT warm by human standards!
Ice worms may tunnel through the ice by secreting some sort of anti-freeze chemical, or they may just wriggle through tiny cracks in the ice. They eat snow algae, coming to the surface of glaciers every evening. They are what is known as “sun-avoiders,” however, and retreat underneath the ice before dawn.
Even though ice worms are small—several centimeters (about an inch) long—they can be numerous. A population count on a Washington glacier indicated more than seven billion worms on that glacier alone!
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