Friday, August 9, 2019

"Coolest" field work ever: Arctic Mars Analogue Svalbard Expeditions (AMASE)

Figuring out the survival suits, AMASE 2004
Testing a new field portable spectrophotometer, AMASE 2005
         Since the emergence of the field of astrobiology in the late 1990s, fundamental questions still persist. What are the basic characteristics of life? How do we recognize life if it does not resemble any known life forms on Earth? These questions have been long debated by National Research Council committees, NAI teams, and numerous panels. In a 2007 report, the following requirements for life were described. First, living organisms are essentially never in static equilibrium with the environment. They exist in steady state, maintaining a balance between growth and decay, or actively growing. Second, an environment that is neither too hot nor too cold where complex molecules can exist without being vaporized or frozen is needed. Third, that environment should have a liquid, presumably water, to enable biological reactions. Last, there needs to be some system for allowing for evolution.
         In 2000, I helped organize a workshop held at the Geophysical Laboratory, sponsored by the National Research Council. In our report titled “Signs of Life: A report based on the April 2000 Workshop on Life Detection Strategies” (2001) we wrote the following:
“We make the assumption that if life exists on other planets or moons, it will be carbon based and dependent on liquid water.  It will also be self-replicating and capable of evolving.  Carbon is the best element for creating macromolecules; it can form chemical bonds with many other atoms to produce biochemical complexity. All life on Earth evolved from a single type of cell, referred to as the last common ancestor, and thus shares the same genetic code and central biochemistry. Extraterrestrial life could be so different from life on Earth that modern methods would fail to detect it.”

         We were on the search for life as we don’t know it. Meanwhile, our challenge was to find evidence of life in the most extreme, seemingly barren places here on Earth. My efforts started with the AMASE expeditions, beginning in 2003, with Hans Amundsen of the University of Oslo as leader. He had assembled an international team of scientists and expedition artists for a voyage to the northern islands of the Svalbard Archipelago. Svalbard is located at about 80° north latitude, the same latitude as northern Greenland. Northern Svalbard is an Arctic desert, which was one of the principal Mars analogue traits important to our ecosystem studies. It is serviced by flights into the major town of Longyearbyen, a combination frontier and tourist destination visited in summer by people from around the world. Like Mars, Svalbard is cold, dry, and virtually devoid of biomass---with exposed rock formations, as well as thermal springs and dormant volcanoes, all-important characteristics for our study.
         My Geophysical Laboratory colleague Andrew Steele and his student Maia Schweitzer were invited on the 2003 trip. Steele was a novice field scientist, having worked primarily in the lab on experimental studies. Liane Benning of Leeds University, who became a close scientific partner of mine during future AMASE trips, accompanied them on the trip. Steele and Schweitzer brought back interesting microbial samples and rocks from Svalbard volcanoes to examine traces of microbial life and organic carbon concentrations.
         In the laboratory, I began to engage in the analyses of the samples finding small amounts of carbon and nitrogen in mantle xenoliths, as well as measuring carbon and oxygen isotopes in a variety of carbonates, some of which were cryogenically precipitated. Amundsen visited the Geophysical Laboratory in December that year and learned that I had a perspective that had not yet been considered. Not only were stable isotopes key for all the samples we collected, but also as a biogeochemist and geo-ecologist, I could bring a different perspective to sampling a Mars-analog site. I was therefore invited to participate in the AMASE 2004 expedition the following summer.
         The Geophysical Laboratory group in 2004 consisted of Andrew Steele, Maia Schweitzer, Jan Toporski and Jake Maule (Steele’s postdocs), Verena Starke (Steele’s graduate student), and me. The Director of the Geophysical Laboratory at that time was Wes Huntress, former NASA Associate Director and champion of the Astrobiology program. He provided special support for several of us to participate in the expedition. We took with us numerous small items of equipment designed to make measurements of nutrients and bacterial loads in the field. There were boxes of 50 ml Falcon tubes, rock bags, reagents, and rock hammers. We all packed duffle bags full of winter clothes, hiking boots, liquid nitrogen dewars, and other field gear. Our departure from Dulles International Airport was complex because of extra bags, travel from one airline to another, and the remote destination in Svalbard. Miraculously, we all arrived in Longyearbyen with our scientific and personal gear ready to meet other AMASE participants and train for the voyage to our field sites.      For most of my life, I abhorred cold weather. The thought of heading to one of the coldest regions of the Earth was something that appealed to me only later in life. Summers in the high Arctic can be very pleasant, depending on the year, with daytime temperatures requiring only a light jacket. Alternatively, a freak snowstorm can blow in, plummeting temperatures far below zero. By the time in 2004 that I left for Svalbard at 80° North latitude, I was so excited to be immersed in this cold, remote landscape. First impressions of this trip were of the outpost city, Longyearbyen, a frontier town with tourist shops and restaurants. I couldn’t wait to board our ship the M/V Polarsyssel and head out to the gray Arctic Ocean.
         After arriving in Longyearbyen, we settled into the local hostel, tested our equipment, purchased more Arctic-worthy gear, and learned about rifles and polar bears. The polar bear is the top carnivore in the Arctic. Typically, these bears spend much of their time on the ice pack hunting seals, but in the summer, when the ice pack retreats, the bears move onto land, give birth to their cubs, and do most of their hunting near shore. Polar bears are a protected and endangered species for a number of reasons, but polar bears and humans should not mix. The AMASE team was taken to the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) rifle range to learn how to protect our fellow scientists and ourselves if we did have a close encounter with a bear. Fortunately, I grew up with a father who was a hunter and taught me how to shoot a rifle, albeit a rather small one, at targets. The rifles we had in Svalbard were German Mausers, comparable to 30-06 rifles in the United States. They were heavy and manually operated; automatic weapons are banned in Norway. We learned loading and unloading of ammunition first, then the three positions for firing.
         Our group of about 15 was splayed out on our stomachs, the first shooting position we learned. The rifles had a substantial kick to them, and it took a steady hand to control the rifle as the shot was fired. We each fired off a round of 4 bullets at the target, learned to carefully check our weapon to see if it was emptied of bullets, and laid down the guns. Our trainers checked the targets. I hit mine every time--not in the center, but in a respectable area that may have been lethal. Our second position was kneeling, which required greater control of the heavy rifle, but improved our ability to aim it properly. Finally, we learned to fire the rifle standing up, the most comfortable pose, but also requiring attention to detail and a strong stance. My aim was decent and I passed the test to be able to defend myself and others from polar bears. Of course, we all hoped we would never have to actually fire the gun at a bear.
         We departed from Longyearbyen about a week after arriving in Svalbard. Our vessel was the M/V Polarsyssel, an icebreaker once owned by the Governor of Svalbard, and now available for hire. It was an older ship, not fitted out for scientific study. After loading our gear, we underwent our next training on how to don survival suits and learn “man overboard” drills. The bulky orange suits made us feel like monsters, and we laughed as we put the giant Norwegian sized suits on and hopped around the deck of the ship. When at our field sites, we wore these suits as we traveled to shore in zodiac boats. In ten years of AMASE expeditions, we never had a serious safety issue in the field.

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