Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Ice Fields to Hot Springs: Targets for Science investigations

The Babes of Science: Tobler, Fogel, Conrad, Benning, and Eigenbrode
Science deliberations at Jotun Springs 2004
         Target areas for investigation were set before each year’s expedition. For the instrument engineers, there is every landform and slope imaginable, often within easy walking distance from shore. With many rock types, cold weather, and remote electronic access, the Svalbard environment put lab-designed instruments to a realistic test. All of the team was intrigued by the presence of glaciers, permafrost, Arctic rivers, and sea ice. The polar regions of Mars contain water ice year round. Learning how to look for signs of life in snow and ice became a major focus in subsequent years. Svalbard is cold enough to contain ice caps, laminated ice that has existed for hundreds if not thousands of years. Two geothermal environments, Troll and Jotun Springs, are the most northern thermal features on land. Troll Springs built significant calcium carbonate (travertine) deposits forming terraces that extended over several 100 m.  All of these features were within a distance from our ship that allowed for relatively easy sampling and collection of specimens as well as field deployment of instruments.
         In 2004, our first sample site was the Bockfjord Volcanic Complex (BVC) including Sverrefjell volcano, which rose up from sea level to over 500 m. Vertical lava conduits, some of which are filled with magnesium-iron-calcium carbonate minerals are relatively rare on Earth. These rare mineral forms were cemented into lava rocks and were part of the draw to go to this remote area. Previously, Hans and Allen Treiman found the rare carbonate minerals in the form of small globules in this Svalbard area (Amundsen, 1987). The globule-like form is nearly identical in appearance to similar minerals in the martian meteorite ALH84001—reportedly harboring martian life (Treiman et al., 2002). Work in 2003 hinted that there was microbial activity on the layered Mg-carbonate coatings on the BVC lava conduit walls. Our stable isotope data on carbonates suggested that the coatings were deposited by low temperature glacial melt-water. 
         Across the inlet from the BVC were the high, steep Devonian red beds that looked strikingly like the iron-rich red rocks of Mars. Although these weren’t as satisfying geologically to us, they held a certain spell when you climbed these mountains letting you easily imagine walking on the surface of Mars itself. One year, postdoc researcher Jake Maule borrowed a prototype space suit and roved the redbeds reminiscent of Armstrong’s first moonwalk 50 years ago. Maule was interested in entering the astronaut-training program; a few years prior to his AMASE experience he and I flew on NASA’s vomit comet to measure how the immune system would work at zero gravity. We learned that antibodies couple with their complement molecules, antigens, even easier at zero gravity than they did on Earth.
         Near the end of the expedition in 2004, we hiked at midnight in the land of 24 hour daylight to the Ebbadalen Formation in Billefjorden, an area that included Carboniferous sediments (about 320 million years old) with calcium-sulfate bearing minerals formed by evaporation that were deposited from a shallow marine setting. Outcrops contain mixed sulfate and sedimentary rocks analogous to evaporite sediments studied by the Mars rover Opportunity. Our team of 20 reached the outcrop at 2 am and swarmed over the layered rocks, rock hammers out and tapping. We found many sedimentary deposits hosting structures similar in appearance to the “blueberries” found on Mars. Clearly this was another example of a Mars analogue site.  

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