Amase-ing Life on the Ice

The ship Lance in Bockfjorden. Bockfjorden is an amazing fjord system that stretches towards several mountain ridges of different geological ages.
Credit: Juan Diego Rodriguez

The Lance Arrives

by Adrienne Kish
August 9, 2009

The simple explanation for why there was no blog entry for yesterday is that yesterday rather bled into today — it’s all a bit of a blur. Science being what it is, we were processing samples until the wee hours of the morning and headed to bed for a quick one-hour nap before rising from the dead to meet the Lance as it arrived at the Ny-Alesund harbor. Tired eyes with dark and puffy circles greeted each other from either side of the railing of the R/V Lance, but smiles were found all around as we were reunited with friends and colleagues as the research vessel docked. Hugs all around transitioned into an exchange of gear between the lab in Ny-Alesund and the ship as we reset ourselves for the next phase of AMASE 2009. The ship departed to shouts and laughter and faded into the fog to float along side the icebergs on the way up the island of Spitsbergen to the next field site.

A view of the landscape while flying by helicopter.
Credit: Juan Diego Rodriguez

Weather has not been on our side so far this trip, so the activities of the next week are based on a nominal plan which I’m sure will be on to Contingency Plan B or C by the time we finish our coffee and get a feel for what the weather will be like both in Ny-Alesund and for the Lance crew up further north. Helicopters will be used to ferry field scientists and equipment between field sites and labs, and the science show will go on, with allowances made for the notorious variability of the weather in mountainous areas.

And with that we will sign off for the night, and wander off to find out beds in an attempt to catch up on a bit of rest before doing it all over again. It’s tiring and sometimes difficult, but it is always rewarding and at the end of the day when you look out and where you are you realize that no matter what worked that day and what didn’t you are working at the top of the world and that is an AMASing thing.

Flying to Bockfjorden

by Adrienne Kish
August 11, 2009

You know you are in for a good day when the first thing you do after breakfast is to get fitted for a pair of crampons. Backpacks were loaded with science gear for sampling the microbial life in glacial ice and ice coring gear, not to mention warm clothes, food, and hot chocolate and we headed out to the field site. Did I mention that our ride was a helicopter…? This was my first time in a helicopter, and I must say that it is a pretty sweet ride!

Cryoconites in glacier ice. Cryoconite are a water filled cylindrical melt-holes that can be easily found on glacial ice surface. The size of these holes is variable but always in the range of centimetres. At bottom of the holes, there is dark material that absorbs solar radiation and promotes melting of the ice beneath it, forming these cylindrical holes. This cryoconites play an important role in the glacier ecosystems because many kinds of living organisms (algae, tardigrada, insects and ice worm) can found nutrients and thrive.
Credit: Juan Diego Rodriguez

We swung by the Lance and landed on the deck to say hello to the other half of the AMASE 2009 team and grab some lunch before flying out again to the field site on a glacier in Bockfjorden. I am a girl with a love for mountains and snow and ice, but I have to say that getting dropped off by a helicopter on a glacier with the sun glinting off the surface of blue ice as pure, clear water winds its way around rocks and ice in its unceasing path to the fjord below blew away any previous experiences in mountains.

The view during the flight from Ny-Alesund to Bockfjorden gives you an idea of what they mean when you hear about the polar ice caps. Here we are mid-summer in North America, thinking of our colleagues back home clinging to their air conditioners for dear life in the blistering heat, and we have nothing but mountain peaks and ice in every direction. It is truly beyond description. We sampled runoff water from the glacier, took ice cores, sampled rocks for biology, and sampled the biomass-rich sediment at the bottom of water melt holes called ‘cryoconites’. We even had some time to spare before the helicopter came to pick us up to poise for a few shots of us in our white Tyvek bunny suits (worn along with surgical-type gloves to keep us from contaminating the ice coring equipment with our own personal biology) on the white glacier. With the rifles we carried for polar bear protection and the white snow suits on the glacier pack all we needed were the skies to recreate a scene from a James Bond film!

The SLICE team studying life in ice was only one of five AMASE teams out in the field today. Other groups were out in Bockfjorden conducting reconnaissance for rover deployment sites, sampling hot springs, and collecting rocks for geological analyses. It was a VERY full day of science. The scenery could not have been more breathtaking, the science goals for the day were reached, and a generally satisfied feeling was felt as we all packed it in for the day. The science rolls on over the next three days until we do a rotation with some people coming off the Lance, field samples in tow, to continue their scientific analyses in the lab at Ny-Alesund, while other Ny-Alesund-based scientists rotate onto the Lance to sample new field sites. In that time we will have a rover deployment to pick up rock samples; practice a Mars sample return-type scenario for sample caching; do field geology and biology sampling in Bockfjorden; test instruments developed as part of the AMASE ASTEP grant from NASA for in situ field analyses; and more ice coring. It’s full steam ahead for AMASE 2009!

SLIce: Searching for signatures of life in ice

Drilling for core samples.
Credit: Juan Diego Rodriguez

by Juan Diego Rodriguez-Blanco
August 12, 2009

In the last days things have moved ahead in AMASE. Very busy days doing science. The Sun never sets and there are always plenty of things to do!

Some of the members of the expedition were working in Longyearbyen packing scientific equipment in the Lance — the ship where we will live over the following days — before departing. Now they are in Bockfjorden doing great research with the Athena rover, while we are working hard in Ny-Alesund.

Ny-Alesund is a very nice place. It is an old mining area transformed today into a scientific settlement, where the Norwegian Polar Institute is located and many of the houses are in fact laboratories. However, do not think that Ny-Alesund is a technological centre! It is just a few houses where scientists work studying topics related to marine biology, atmospheric physics or geology, and in fact it is the most septentrional permanently inhabited settlement of our planet. From here the sights are overwhelming: high mountains with glaciers everywhere and icebergs in a strange and silent land where sometimes you can see deer, foxes and birds.

Drilling for core samples. Liane Benning and Jennifer Eigenbrode obtaining core samples in Friedrichbreen glacier, near Bockfjorden.
Credit: Juan Diego Rodriguez

 

The first thing I needed to do in Ny-Alesund was rifle shooting training. Apart from the deer, foxes and birds there are some animals that sometimes can be very unfriendly: polar bears. And in Svalbard you are not allowed to go to the field if you don’t know how to defend yourself against them. This doesn’t mean that you will see polar bears every time that you go out, but there are incidents every year and this matter has to be taken seriously. We are sharing the same regions as them. There are specific areas that they use to transit, to live or to hunt, so the appropriate precautions have to be taken when you go to the field and the most important one is to always take a rifle with you.

Hiking tubes. This is what you are expected to do if you don’t fly by helicopter to take the samples.
Credit: Juan Diego Rodriguez

 

One of the strong AMASE projects that combines fieldwork and laboratory is SLIce, led by Jennifer Eigenbrode, a very clever young scientist who is working for NASA Goddard Space Center. SLIce is a multidisciplinary investigation of organic signatures and habitats for life in near-surface glacial ice. Ice can be considered a cryogenic vault for preserving organic matter, because at such cold temperatures, hydrolysis and oxidation — processes that degrade organic molecules — are very retarded, so life can survive in the presence of impurities. Although there is life in Svalbard, there are blue-ice glacier areas where only extremophiles can thrive; they survive at very low temperatures with almost no water at all and obtain nutrients from mineral particles and chemical substances diluted in the ice.

Studying these ice cores is a very interesting task, because they can be considered as Martian analogs. If there was/is life on Mars — as we know it on Earth — the living organisms could be located in the water-ice layers under the surface. By understanding how extremophiles live on Earth, we can use the information to try to find similar environments on Mars. Here’s a simple example: ESA’s ExoMars rover will include a drilling system that will be able to take samples up to a depth of 2 meters. When these samples are characterized, we will know the ambient conditions, mineralogy and chemistry of the Martian subsurface in specific areas. Depending on the nature of the drilling area we could say: ‘This is the same environment in which Earth extremophiles can survive’, information that will help really a lot in the search for life on Mars.

Red and blue algae. Apart from the ice cores, we take also environmental samples: running water, red and blue algae, cryoconites, etc. This two pictures show red and blue algae that survive in glacier ice that was taken in Friedrichbreen glacier.
Credit: Juan Diego Rodriguez

 

The task to get the ice cores is not especially difficult. Firstly you go to a glacier to get some ice core samples and take them to the lab for analyses. There are two ways of doing that. The first one is by taking five 20-kilogram (45-pound) cylindrical containers and hike some kilometers to a nearby glacier, do the coring and go back to the lab. In this case it is better you ask for five strong people that can carry a total of 35 kilograms (80 pounds) apiece. We did that our second day in Ny-Alesund, walking a total of 12 kilometers with our heavy samples in our backpacks. I’m sure that people in Ny-Alesund saw us and thought something like ‘Isn’t is weird to transport all that heavy load of ice for so long when it is available everywhere?’

The second way to get ice cores is to fly by helicopter, so you don’t destroy your back and also enjoy a nice view of the landscape. We did that yesterday. What a difference! Flying over the glaciers and the mountains at low height is something that is difficult to delete from any mind. And I am sure the readers will agree that this option is more exciting and avoids tiredness.

Friedrichbreen glacier. A panoramic picture of Friedrichbreen glacier, one of the three areas where ice cores are taken for the SLIce project.
Credit: Juan Diego Rodriguez

So during these days we are combining field trips with lab work in the Marinlab. So far we have obtained good samples in two different glaciers (Midre Lovenbreen and Friedrichbreen) and we plan to go to a third one in the next days. In all cases this is a task that has to be done carefully. All the samples must be taken avoiding any kind of biological contamination (in fact, contamination tests are done in-situ). After drilling the cores, we take them to the lab for melting, filtration and analyses: this includes many microbiological, chemical and mineralogical tests (analyses of nutrients available, DNA, ARN, medium and high resolution microscopy imaging, XRD, aqueous solution composition analyses, etc).

Tomorrow we will finish our lab work in Ny-Alesund and will travel by helicopter again to the Lance where we will continue our work and move to new and no less exciting research! Stay tuned!