Europa Diary I: Landing on Alien Terrain

Europa Diary 1

Landing on Alien Terrain

Europa, false color.
Jupiter’s moon Europa.Credit: NASA

The Europa Focus Group is a collaboration of scientists who study Jupiter’s moon, Europa. This ice-covered world may be one of the few places in our solar system other than Earth that has a water ocean, and liquid water is believed to be one of the key factors in the development of life. Astrobiologists and other scientists eager to learn more about Europa recently headed to Alaska’s North Slope.

The scientists studied the region’s unique terrain, providing insight for future missions to the icy landscape of Europa. Flying in small aircraft to study geographical features, driving snowmobiles over glacial terrain, digging bore holes to get a glimpse of ice history — all the activities pursued by these hardy adventurers may someday be duplicated on the surface of Europa by robotic spacecraft.

Matt Pruis, a support scientist with NorthWest Research Associates in Seattle, Washington, attended the North Slope conference and kept a journal of the events.

Wednesday, 23 April 2003

It didn’t hit me until this morning at 6:30 AM, when I walked my dog down to the beach of a small lake on the outskirts of Seattle. The weather was overcast and rainy, with a foggy mist hovering above the lake. This is the type of weather you come to love if you choose to call Seattle home. As I stood there, I suddenly realized that I would be standing on the shoreline of the northernmost settlement in Alaska this very evening, looking out over the Arctic Ocean. Somehow, it was a humbling thought.

It’s about 2,100 miles from Seattle to Barrow, Alaska — not a bad day’s trip by today’s standards. When the weather cooperates, the journey is truly spectacular. Sitting in my window seat on the airplane, I was treated to a panorama of the Wrangle-St. Elias mountain ranges, followed by a close fly-by of Mt. McKinley, and capped off by a view of the "fast ice" on the coast of the Chukchi Sea.

Cloudy snow peaks of Mt. McKinley, Alaska. Credit: M. Pruis

On the last leg of the trip, from Fairbanks to Barrow, I began to recognize some of the other passengers as former participants in other Focus Group meetings. In all, 22 of us have chosen to gather on the North Slope to discuss our current understanding of the ice features of Jupiter’s moon Europa. We also will be learning about the floating ice pack of our own planet.

The ice cover on Europa is thought to be between 2 to 50 kilometers thick, and there is compelling evidence that the ice may be overlaying a deep ocean of water. Dr. Ron Greeley of Arizona State University, with the assistance of Dr. Hajo Eicken of the University of Alaska, has organized this workshop to allow us to observe sea ice first-hand. Although we can learn much about the physics, chemistry and biology of sea ice from text books and journal papers, I believe that true appreciation can only occur after one has drilled, tasted and stubbed their (well-insulated) toe on actual sea ice.

Whaling camps being set up by the Iñupiat native people were visible on our approach into Barrow’s airport. They place their camps by the "flaw lead," a region along the shoreline where pack ice has been blown away from the shore fast ice. The original settlement of native people is believed to have occurred around 800 A.D. Since that time there has been continuous settlement of this land, making it one of North America’s richest regions in cultural and ethnic history.

When we stepped off the plane in Barrow, we were greeted with a blast of 9° F (-13° C) Arctic air. A light snowfall was blowing horizontally across the runway. Crossing the tarmac over to a small metal building to retrieve our luggage, one of my colleagues said blithely, "Well, it looks and feels as if we have come to the ends of the Earth." Cinching up my coat a little further, I thought to myself, "and it is good to be here."

We’re staying at the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium (BASC), which is located at a complex that was once a Navy facility known as NARL (Naval Arctic Research Laboratory). After checking in to the bunkhouse, we headed for our safety briefing and an overview of the planned workshop activities.

There are many dangers associated with working in this challenging locale, but the greatest danger is from being inattentive around moving machinery. In other words, getting run over by a snowmobile. The other major dangers on the ice pack are getting separated from shore (if the ice breaks away from the shoreline), twisting ankles on the broken and fractured sea ice, and finally, polar bears.

Someone asked how often a dangerous encounter occurs with polar bears. The answer was, "Not very often." Usually the bears just do their own thing and don’t pay much attention to people. But a few years ago a bear ripped the large metal doors off the refrigerated ice core locker in the BASC compound. The locker previously had been used to store "mikiaq," or Bowhead whale meat fermented in blood, and the lingering aroma had probably attracted the bear.

Only one person has had a fatal run-in with a polar bear in this area over the past six years. It’s unlikely that we will even see a polar bear on this trip. Still, a polar bear was spotted in the BASC complex last Sunday evening, so it is best not to be caught unaware!

Polar bear footprint in the snow, compared to hand-size. The dangers of the Great White North, around Alaska’s North Slope. Credit: M. Pruis

The facilities we will use and the areas we will visit over the next couple of days are on native lands. The Ukpeagvik Iñupiat Corporation has given all of us "scientific use permits" to explore and take some limited samples of the nearby sea ice and Arctic terrain. It is only with their assistance that we are able to have this workshop. Some of the elders have graciously agreed to share with us their experiences and insights of sea ice.

We plan to have multiple excursions to the near-shore ice, an aerial over-flight of the pack ice, and visits to some permafrost and frozen freshwater lakes. Hopefully, time permitting; we also will be able to visit the Native Heritage Museum. We are very much at the mercy of the weather conditions, however, and will need to keep flexible. Presentations on recent Europa research will be squeezed into the schedule whenever there is down time.

I’ve decided to read "Farthest North" by Fridtjof Nansen for this trip. This book is a classic tale of Arctic adventure set in the late nineteenth century, but it is also the scientific basis for many of the theories still used to describe ice motion and thermodynamics.

Over the past couple of years, I have been developing and describing large-scale sea ice models. It continues to amaze me that Nansen’s work, completed 110 years ago, is still used to describe the drift of ice in the open ocean. It indicates the quality of the work.

Describing the long departure from his home village, Nansen opened a chapter of his book with a poem:

"So travel I north to the gloomy abode
That the sun never shines on –
There is no day."

Since I’m traveling at a different time of year, I am having the opposite experience – there seems to be no night. It is now 11:30PM, and there has not been any appreciable change in the brightness outside. After reading a few more pages of Nansen’s exploits, I will head off to sleep and hopefully be well rested for tomorrow’s explorations!


Support for the conference was provided by the NASA Astrobiology Institute. Dr. Ronald Greeley (Arizona State University) organized the meeting; Dr. Hajo Eicken (University of Alaska) organized and led the field excursions. The Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation allowed the use of their meeting facilities and provided access to key field areas.

Matthew Pruis is a third-year graduate student in Marine Geology and Geophysics at the University of Washington’s School of Oceanography. He received his Bachelor of Science in Applied Geophysics from the Michigan Technological University. His graduate advisor is H. Paul Johnson . In addition to his graduate work, Matt also works at NorthWest Research Associates, Inc. as a research scientist. In this multi-part Europa Diary series, Matt Pruis chronicled his impressions for the Astrobiology Magazine, as part of his participation in the Europa Focus Group’s recent journey to Alaska’s North Slope.

Related Web Pages

Europa Diary I: Landing on Alien Terrain
Europa Diary II: Life on Ice
Europa Diary III: On Polar Bear Time
Europa Diary IV: Walking on Thin Ice
Alaska Europan Photo Gallery (Credit: Matt Pruis/Jere Lipps)
Ice on Europa
Iñupiat native people
Barrow Arctic Science Consortium
Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation
Interpreting Europa’s Features
Infrared Spectroscopy: An Overview
Galileo Project Home