Every autumn a fundamental transition occurs in the surface waters of polar oceans. Millions of square kilometres of surface waters freeze to form an ice layer that varies from a few centimetres through to several metres thick, and which effectively separates the ocean from the atmosphere above. Ice made from seawater is a porous, semi-solid matrix permeated by a labyrinth of brine channels and pores, and within these a diverse microbial assemblage, including viruses, Archaea, bacteria, flagellates and unicellular algae can thrive. These assemblages can reach such high abundances that the ice becomes a rich coffee colour. The microbial assemblages are in turn a rich food source for grazing protoplankton and zooplankton, especially in winter when food in the water column is scarce.

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