Mars Research in Polar Bear Country

Interview with Hans Amundsen

Hans Amundsen is a Norwegian geologist and the expedition leader of AMASE (Arctic Mars Analog Svalbard Expedition). AMASE is an international, interdisciplinary scientific research project that since 2003 has traveled to Svalbard, a group of islands in the High Arctic that provides some of the best sites on Earth for doing Mars-related field research. Among the most valuable geologic discoveries there are carbonate globules similar to those found in the martian meteorite ALH84001. Many of the scientific instruments slated for future Mars rovers, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and ESA’s ExoMars, have been field-tested in Svalbard. Astrobiology Magazine’s field research editor Henry Bortman recently spoke with Amundsen about the history of AMASE.

Astrobiology Magazine (AM): How did you get involved in the AMASE project?

Hans Amundsen (HA): It dates back 11 years ago when Allan Treiman at LPI and Dave Blake and Ted Bunch at NASA Ames tracked down a paper I wrote in Nature on some carbonate globules in arctic volcanoes up on Svalbard.

Members of the AMASE team prepare to test a prototype rover during the 2007 field season.
Credit: ©2007 AMASE

At that time I was working for an oil company. One day while I was surfing on the Sojourner rover website, looking at these fantastic Mars images, I got an email from Allan Treiman, asking for samples from Svalbard and if I wanted to join in on the work they were doing on the Alan Hills meteorite (ALH84001, a meteorite from Mars that some scientists argued contained signs of martian life). That was ’97. After a few years of exchanging samples and emails, we started working on the idea of getting more scientists up to this locality to try to find out more about how carbonates form on Mars, and to use it as a Mars analogue in a general sense.

In 2003, with the help of the University of Oslo, I managed to charter a small ice-breaker to go up there with a crew and the whole works. The university took the risk of chartering it and I sold out the slots onboard to Mars science people, and the word just spread. Steelie (Andrew Steele of Carnegie Institution of Washington) called me up a couple weeks before the expedition was setting out and asked if there were any vacant slots and I had two, so he came along with his post-doc, Maia Schweizer.

People came in from all over the world. We met there for the first time, onboard ship, and just headed off. We had no funding, there was no project plan, it was just a lot of very, very enthusiastic people. Some of them are still onboard.

Steelie is the AMASE chief scientist and has become my brother-in-arms on this project. We’ve developed it together with a core team of people that came onboard during the first years. And it’s now grown so much, we had to hire a larger ship. So we have an icebreaker that we charter every year, the 900-ton R/V Lance, with room for 32 scientists. We’ve got funding from both NASA and ESA now: Steelie’s through his ASTEP project; and I got funding through ESA’s PRODEX program. The PRODEX project is designed to test ExoMars instruments, the same way we test MSL and other instruments for NASA. So now we actually have deliverables that we have to come up with; we can’t just play around any more.

AMASE expedition leader Hans E F Amundsen explores a Svalbard cliff face.
Credit: AMASE

AM: What makes Svalbard such a good research site?

HA: Within a fairly limited area you have access to all sorts of geology. It’s a fantastic classroom for any type of geology. And because it’s in the High Arctic, there’s no vegetation. There’s lots of fjords, so you have access to all the sites by ship. It’s comparable to Antarctica in terms of conditions and geology but it’s much cheaper to operate. I’ve been doing field work on Svalbard for the past 25 years, on and off, and I know the area very well and how to operate there. We’ve worked four or five different areas, some of them dealing with different aspects of the Alan Hills carbonate story. We’ve been looking at blueberry (hematite) concretion analogs, old stromatolites, red beds, fluvial sediments, different things that are relevant for Mars research and astrobiology in general.

AM: Where exactly is Svalbard?

HA: It’s directly north of Norway, 80 degrees north, way north of the Arctic Circle. It’s governed by the Svalbard Treaty, which was set down in 1920 and states that Svalbard is Norwegian territory, governed by Norway, but that anyone who has signed the Svalbard Treaty has access to its resources. So the Russians mine for coal there. There’s a Polish research station, and of course there’s a Norwegian research station and Longyearbyen with around 2,000 people. Actually, there’s lots of international research occurring on Svalbard.

AM: What has been the most interesting aspect for you of working on Svalbard?

AMASE chief scientist Andrew Steele examines an ice coring tool used to look for evidence of life frozen deep within the ice.
Credit: Kjell Ove Storvik/AMASE

HA: Gathering all these interdisciplinary scientists and putting them onboard a ship, which is a confined environment, and making them work together has been a fantastic experience. We have what we call the “polar bear factor,” which means that we have to take safety issues very seriously and focus on building teams.

Nobody’s allowed to work alone. You always work in groups of four or five people. There’s always radio communication going on. We have to know where everybody is, we have to look out for bears, and make sure that people are not dehydrated, cold, or wet.

That enables you to take all these alpha personalities and weld them into a team; they have to collaborate. People have to carry each other’s gear; they have to watch each other’s back. We always have one scientist standing guard with a rifle watching while other scientists do their work. That makes it a fantastic environment for forcing people to work together, and it actually fosters interdisciplinary science. People who normally wouldn’t even talk, they have to collaborate. It’s turned the AMASE culture into something kind of special.

AM: Is it a stressful environment?

HA: No, but because of the midnight sun, it’s daylight all the time, you can work 24/7. People tend to work, not sleep. And when they’re finished with whatever they have to do, they’ll just stand on deck and look at that fantastic scenery. So during the two weeks these things last, maybe you average 4 or 5 hours of sleep a night. You’re exhausted by the end. There’s a lot of physical activity, a lot of walking involved, and no trails. And you have to carry stuff. We do have helicopters for when we need to lift something heavy, but there’s a lot of hiking. We’re hiking up steep mountainsides and walking on glaciers and carrying heavy equipment, and working very, very long hours.

Artist’s conception of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover, which will search for signs of life on Mars.
Credit: ESA

AM: What’s the focus of your research going to be this year?

HA: From the previous year, we’ve got ESA instruments onboard, ExoMars instruments. In the past we focused on microbiology and mineralogy tools. This year we’re testing the PanCam imager, the Infrared spectrometer MIMA (Mars Inrared MApper) and also the ground-penetrating Radar, called WISDOM (Water Ice and Subsurface Deposit Observations on Mars). The Raman/LIBS instrument will be along for the second time.

There are two field sites this year that we haven’t visited before. One is a continuous section of sediments that covers about 350 million years of Earth history, going from the Carboniferous (which began about 360 million years ago) until the Tertiary. The entire section has been rotated sideways so the beds are oriented vertically and you can actually walk 2 or 3 kilometers through 350 million years along a beach cliff, and you can address all sorts of geochemistry, mineralogy, microbiology, and biosignature questions.

And then there’s a small ice cap far north on Svalbard, which is dissected. So you have this 5 to 10 meter wall with beautiful structures — small sedimentary horizons in the ice — and we’ll hit that with all sorts of instruments. That’s a new science scene to us, looking at ice in that way.

AM: You’ve mentioned polar bears a couple of times. How often do you see a bear?

HA: Last year we had a couple of bear incidents. One day when we were working up a hillside on a volcano, suddenly a bear wandered by, down by the beach. Nothing dangerous, but we just sort of monitored it while it walked along for a couple of hours. We just stopped working and made sure that the bear didn’t approach us, and it went off. And another incident, we were going ashore somewhere and we more or less stepped onto a bear, but it ran off. So, yeah, they’re there. And they have no natural enemies. They eat what they want to eat. They can run 100 yards in 6 seconds. So we run everybody through an Arctic safety course, arranged by the university on Svalbard, which involves dos and don’ts, and polar bear psychology, and shooting practice with rifles. Everybody’s supposed to be able to handle a rifle and know what to do when a polar bear gets too close.

Related Web Sites

Astrobiology Roadmap Goal 5
Astrobiology Roadmap Goal 7
Arctic, Antarctic, Mars
Mars Science Laboratory Shakedown in the High Arctic
Life in Ice
Digging Deep