Amase-ing Life on the Ice
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!