What An Antarctic Island Tells Us about Mars

For several years, researchers have worked to determine how life can be sustained in extraterrestrial space, known for conditions of extreme heat and cold. A recent study in the journal Extremophiles, conducted on Deception Island in Antarctica, provides answers to some of these questions.

Pendulum Cove, Deception Island, Antarctica (Source: Delphinidaesy/Flickr).

At Deception Island, both volcanoes and glaciers lie in close proximity, creating regions of prominent temperature differences over a short distance. The extreme conditions on the island range from 98 to 0 degrees Celsius due to the presence of active fumaroles (openings near the volcano), where the temperatures reach values of 100 degrees Celsius, and glaciers, where temperatures drop to 0 degrees Celsius. The close proximity of volcanoes and glaciers makes Deception Island an interesting analogue for extraterrestrial environments, including Mars’s extinct volcanoes and Enceladus’s cryovolcanoes.

This polar location allowed researchers to recover microorganisms that have the ability to survive under very hot conditions beyond their growing range of temperature. The study explored the microorganisms surviving in these conditions and tested their survival potential in astrobiological conditions.

To isolate the microorganisms surviving in these extreme environments, the scientists collected sediment samples from the volcano on Deception Island during the XXXII Brazilian Antarctic Expedition from December 2013 to January 2014 at the geothermally active sites of Fumarole Bay and Whalers Bay.

Deception Island, Antarctica (Source: Melissa Scott/Flickr).

Through DNA-sequencing techniques, scientists estimated the total number of bacterial cells in the sediment. To isolate microbes that have the ability to survive in extreme conditions, the samples were incubated in two different temperatures, 4 degrees Celsius and 60 degrees Celsius. The samples were allowed to grow for about two weeks. A total of 147 colonies were successfully obtained from these procedures, and they were subjected to further molecular analyses to determine the species and the genera of the microorganisms.

In addition, the samples were subjected to ultraviolet radiation that is present on Mars, called UV-C radiation. UV-C radiation, although not present on Earth, composes a significant proportion of UV spectra on the Martian surface, due to the rarified atmosphere of the planet.

On top of the volcano crater on Deception Island (Source: staigue/Flickr).

Scientists from the study found that the microorganisms were able to survive these conditions despite the fact that these range of temperatures were beyond the range in which they normally grow. The study also found that these microorganisms adapted to surviving under these temperatures by forming spores around their membranes, which enabled them to resist the extreme range of temperatures. These structures suggested to the researchers that there could be a similar adaptation strategy to enable the survival of microbial life on Martian surfaces.

The study provided interesting insights into strategies deployed by microorganisms to survive in conditions that resemble the Martian surface. The initial data from the study suggest the thermophiles isolated by the researchers have the potential to be further explored in astrobiological studies.

Sruti Devendran holds a Master’s degree in Climate and Society from Columbia University. She did her undergraduate degree in biotechnology in India. She is curious about the potential possibility of life in extraterrestrial space. She enjoys writing and cares about issues affecting low income communities impacted by climate change.

Is the Martian Hypanis a Glacier? A New Study Says No.

This image from the High-Resolution Stereo Camera on ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft shows a thick layer of dust covering the glaciers (Source: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin).

Is there life on Mars? Whether it’s the pursuit of little green men or sources of water, Mars exploration holds a particular fascination both within and outside the scientific community. President Trump’s announcement last week directing the Pentagon to create a sixth branch of the military called Space Force further demonstrates how society can’t escape its innate curiosity of space and the final frontier. This appeal toward the red planet has led to new studies on the climate and geology of Mars, particularly as improvements in satellite data enhance our ability to understand our neighboring planet.

A recent study from a team of scientists led by Jacob Adler of Arizona State University explored a unique area of scientific interest on Mars called Hypanis Valles. Considered a potential landing site for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover and ESA’s ExoMars 2018 rover mission, Hypanis is a large, fan-shaped sedimentary deposit on Mars approximately 150 meters tall and 60 kilometers wide. It has been hypothesized whether a major lobe of Hypanis Vallis could be home to a rock glacier. Adler’s team used satellite images to rule out that option. Instead, they found compelling evidence that these layered, fine-grained deposits were a massive delta.  

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) Context Camera (CTX) mosaic of the Hypanis deposit. It stands out as light-toned in the center (Source: Adler et al.).

Because of the lack of high-enough resolution satellite data until recently, scientists were uncertain of which landforms composed Hypanis. For the major lobe of Hypanis, the main candidates were a delta, mudflow, or alluvial fan. For the second, dubbed northern lobe, which the team hypothesized was formed by a different mechanism than the major lobe, one of the main landforms considered was a rock glacier. Interpreting the geomorphology and silt compositions, Adler and his team determined both lobes appear to be of deltaic origin and the largest yet found on Mars.

The paper uses the definition of a delta as a “fan-shaped sedimentary deposit formed when fluvial transport reaches a larger body of standing water.” The team explored three hypotheses before determining the delta hypothesis was the most plausible.

Located in the large Xanthe Terra region along the equator of the red planet, Hypanis appears to have existed for over 3.6 billion years, the product of a large lake or sea once spanning the area. The study explored the geological story of Hypanis and used the most recent high-resolution images and data collected on the region to characterize the deposit in greater detail.

Kenneth Tanaka, a scientist and cartographer recently retired from the United States Geological Survey, told GlacierHub that the team compiled a strong argument for a deltaic origin for these layered, fine-grained deposits occurring at the mouth of Hypanis Valles by using the latest and best imaging datasets available from spacecrafts orbiting Mars  

The northern edge of the main lobe ends with cliffs roughly 70 m in height. In these images HiRISE image ESP_021577_1920 is overlaid on a HiRISE stereo DTM (Source: Adler et al.).

The study supports that the ancient layered material was deposited by a large body of water on the surface of Mars. Adler told GlacierHub that a striking fact from the study was the sheer size of the deltaic structure on Mars. As potentially the largest delta on Mars, Hypanis doesn’t compete with the largest ones on Earth and is only slightly smaller than the Colorado River delta. But for the dusty red planet, it is remarkable.

“Its gently dipping layers were surprisingly continuous for many kilometers, implying deposition in a calm environment,” Adler said. “If it were indeed once a delta, then there would have been a large lake or sea spanning this area of Mars.”

A delta origin seems most likely. But what all options had in common was that a large body of water over 4 billion years old was in place to shape the Hypanis region. When Hypanis formed, scientists believe rivers and oceans may have covered Mars and shaped the planet’s geography and climate. But over time, the atmosphere thinned, and the surface dried as water was sequestered to the polar caps or in the soil, or lost to space. To explain how something as strongly associated with water as a delta could be found on a planet so dry, the team describes how “the ancient deltaic deposit we observe today was largely untouched by subsequent catastrophic outflows, and its surface has only been moderately reshaped by over 3 billion years of aeolian [wind-blown] erosion.”

HiRISE image of a crater and infill–likely remains of glacial processes here. (Source: UAHiRise (NASA)/Flickr).

Although the possibility of Hypanis being a rock glacier was ultimately ruled out, glaciers on Mars are a part in understanding the planet. 

“Glaciers on Mars can tell us about the climate history of the planet and could be a great water resource for future astronauts to utilize,” Adler told GlacierHub. He also explained the basic characteristics of Martian glaciers. For one thing, unlike the striking white and blue images of glaciers on Earth, red dust and debris bury the ice on Mars, making Martian glaciers difficult to identify. Additionally, as noted above, Martian features can remain for immensely long periods on Mars.

What’s the significance of all of this? Identifying these structures remains critical to our understanding of water on Mars and whether life may have once existed on the planet. Fortunately, the identification of Martian glaciers appears to be getting easier, as evidenced with this recent study.

According to another author of the article, Peter Fawdon, “the incredible level of detail that can be seen in the HiRISE [High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment] image of the area” is surprising. With the new data, more studies on the geomorphology and geological context of Hypanis are in the works and expected for publication in the near future. Other potential deltas across the planet could also be analyzed in a similar manner. A more thorough understanding of the delta may suggest that Hypanis Vallis could once again become the target of a future Mars mission, a space force or otherwise.

Roundup: Martian Glaciers, Icebergs, and Ice-Diving Drones

New Study on Water Ice Cliffs Found on Mars

From Science: “Some locations on Mars are known to have water ice just below the surface, but how much has remained unclear… The ice sheets extend from just below the surface to a depth of 100 meters or more and appear to contain distinct layers, which could preserve a record of Mars’ past climate. They might even be a useful source of water for future human exploration of the red planet.”

Learn more about the Martian glaciers here.

Image of the Valles Marineris, a massive system of canyons on Mars (Source: Wikimedia Commons).


Over 1,000 Icebergs in Shipping Lanes in 2017

From The Maritime Executive: “The U.S. Coast Guard’s International Ice Patrol said Thursday that 2017 was the fourth ‘extreme’ season in a row for icebergs in the North Atlantic, with 1,008 bergs tallied in the shipping lanes… The count was high due to powerful storms and to the retreat of Greenland’s glaciers, which both contributed to more calving events.”

Check out more information about the migrating icebergs here.

Image of the Eqi Sermia Glacier in Greenland. Retreating exit glaciers, like this one, have resulted in many of the icebergs entering shipping lanes in the North Atlantic (Source: loraineltai/Flickr).


Ice-diving Drones on Risky Mission at Antarctic Glacier

From Scientific American: “This month a fleet of seven underwater robots developed by the University of Washington (U.W.) in Seattle is heading into this world on a risky yearlong mission. Their goal: help forecast sea level rises by observing the melting process in this hidden topsy-turvy world, where layers of warm and cool water mix at the shelf.”

Explore more about the dangers facing the drones and their mission here.

Pine Island Glacier Ice Shelf where the drones will be exploring glacier retreat (Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr).

Could Cryoconites Hold the Secrets to Extraterrestrial Life?

In recent years, scientists have found other locations on planets, moons and exoplanets where life might exist. Different animals and organisms like tardigrades (eight-legged microscopic animals commonly known as water bears) have also been sent into space to explore the conditions for survival away from Earth. However, a recent paper published in the journal Contemporary Trends in Geoscience argues that we can look closer to home to understand survival strategies of extraterrestrial life.

More concretely, the authors propose we look to glacier cryoconites, which are granular or spherical mineral particles aggregated with microorganisms like cyanobacteria, algae, fungi, tardigrades and rotifera (another type of multicellular, microscopic animal). Glaciers are among the most extreme environments on Earth due to the high levels of ultraviolet (UV) radiation received and the permanently cold conditions. These factors make them analogous to icy planets or moons.

(Clockwise from top left) An ice sheet in Greenland, cryoconite holes, cryoconite granules, and cryconite granules in high resolution (Source: Zawierucha et al., 2017).

The associations of cryoconites and microorganisms on glaciers are held together in biofilms by extracellular polymeric substances (natural polymers of high molecular weight) secreted by cyanobacteria. They exist as sediment or in cryoconite holes (water-filled reservoirs with cryoconite sediment on the floor) on glacier surfaces.

Cryoconites have been found on every glacier where researchers have looked for them. Cryoconite holes form due to the darkening of color (also termed a decrease in the albedo, or reflectivity of solar radiation) of cryoconite-covered surfaces. The darker color leads to greater absorption of radiation, with an associated warming and increasing melt rates.

“Today we think that simple life forms might have survived on Mars in glacial refugia or under the surface. They can and could have evolved on Saturn and Jupiter’s icy moons,” Krzysztof Zawierucha, the lead author from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland, shared with GlacierHub. “Imagine a multicellular organism, even a microscopic one, which is able to live and reproduce on an icy moon… It is a biotechnological volcano.”

Earth’s glaciers could be analogous to environments like floating ice on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons (Source: NASA).

Organisms that live in glaciated regions are adapted to survive in extreme conditions and could provide insights into the survival strategies of extraterrestrial life. Some possess lipids (organic compounds that are not water-soluble), and produce proteins and extracellular polymeric substances that protect them from freezing and drying. Others are able to enter cryptobiotic states in which metabolic activity is reduced to an undetectable level, allowing them to survive extremely harsh conditions.

The microorganisms in cryoconites cooperate and compete, affecting each other’s survival responses. Therefore, previous astrobiological studies, which have only been conducted on single strains of microorganisms, may not reflect the true survival mechanisms of these microorganisms.

Tardigrades can undergo cryptobiosis and survive in the vacuum of space (Source: UNC Chapel Hill/Creative Commons).

In addition, previous astrobiological studies involving some of these microorganisms used terrestrial or limno-terrestrial (moist terrestrial environments that go through periods of immersion and desiccation) taxa, such as moss cushions, which are less likely to be well-adapted to icy planets than their glacier-dwelling cousins.

Tardigrades found in cryoconite have black pigmentation, which probably protects them from high UV radiation. Along with tardigrades, glacier-dwelling rotifera, specifically Bdelloidea, also possess a great ability to repair DNA damage, which confers high resistance to UV radiation. Both may also be better adapted to surviving in constantly near-freezing conditions than terrestrial forms.

“So far, a number of processes analogous to those on Mars and other planets or moons have been found in the McMurdo Dry Valley as well as other dry valleys or brines in sea ice, both of which were considered to be extraterrestrial ecosystem analoguos. There is a great body of evidence that some bacteria and microscopic animals like tardigrades may survive under Martian conditions,” Zawierucha explained.

“Of course, to survive does not mean to be active and to reproduce. Undoubtedly, however, it triggers consideration regarding life beyond Earth, especially in close proximity or connection with permafrost or ice,” he added.

As such, further research about cryoconites could provide insight to mechanisms that enable organisms to survive such extreme conditions. At the same time, cryoconites could also be used in future astrobiological studies to understand how life on other planets functions.

Glaciers on other planets?

In light of Pluto’s newest photos from the New Horizons spacecraft mission, this Photo Friday showcases photos of the surprisingly snowy and mountainous geology of planetary bodies.

While not quite glacial, check out these photos of dwarf planet Pluto’s icy mountains and the snow-capped poles of Mars below.

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Our understanding of the composition and processes of glaciers on Earth helps scientists understand glacial-like geology in space.

Pluto’s newfound mountain ranges are estimated to be as tall as the Rocky Mountains, at around 11,000 feet. The mountains are likely composed of water-ice “bedrock.” At 100 million years old, the mountains are relatively young, at least in comparison to the age of the 4.567 billion-year-old solar system. Meanwhile, the planet Mars has two permanent ice caps that scientists have long known about. Both poles are comprised of water-ice, like Pluto’s mountains, and are occasionally covered with thick, frozen carbon dioxide.

For more information about Mars’ polar ice caps, check out this past GlacierHub article. Or instead, switch your direction of sight and see Earth’s glaciers viewed from space here.

Roundup: Mars Habitat, Peru Drought, Wildfires

Terrestrial fluvial-lacustrine environments suggest past habitability in Mars

Vatnajökull Ice Cap, Iceland (Photo: Flickr)
Vatnajökull Ice Cap region, Iceland (Photo: Flickr)

“The search for once-habitable locations on Mars is increasingly focused on environments dominated by fluvial and lacustrine processes, such as those investigated by the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover. The availability of liquid water coupled with the potential longevity of such systems renders these localities prime targets for the future exploration of Martian biosignatures. Fluvial-lacustrine environments associated with basaltic volcanism are highly relevant to Mars, but their terrestrial counterparts have been largely overlooked as a field analogue. Such environments are common in Iceland, where basaltic volcanism interacts with glacial ice and surface snow to produce large volumes of meltwater within an otherwise cold and dry environment”

Read more here.

New community-based adaptation to drought in Peru

Communities in Peru suffer from drought (Photo: Flickr)

“The livelihoods of people in the Andes are expected to be affected by climate change due to their dependence on glacier water. The observed decrease in glacier volume over the last few decades is likely to accelerate during the current century, which will affect water availability in the region. This paper presents an approach for participatory development of community-based adaptation measures to cope with the projected impacts of climate change. It combines in an innovative manner participatory design with physical measurements, modeling and a vulnerability analysis.”

Read more here.

Mineral dust and black carbon from wildfires melt Washington’s glaciers

Mount Olympus in  Washington (Photo: Flickr)
Mount Olympus in Washington (Photo: Flickr)

“Assessing the potential for black carbon (BC) and dust deposition to reduce albedo and accelerate glacier melt is of interest in Washington because snow and glacier melt are an important source of water resources, and glaciers are retreating. In August 2012 on Snow Dome, Mount Olympus, Washington, we measured snow surface spectral albedo and collected surface snow samples and a 7 m ice core. The snow and ice samples were analyzed for iron (Fe, used as a dust proxy) via inductively coupled plasma sector field mass spectrometry, total impurity content gravimetrically, BC using a single-particle soot photometer (SP2), and charcoal through microscopy……The Big Hump forest fire is the likely source for the higher concentrations”

Read more here.


Roundup: Glaciovolcanic Mars, Columbia Retreat, Students Lured with Cash

More Evidence to Prove Existence of Ice-Volcanoes on Mars

Mars Glaciers







“We conclude that glaciovolcanic landforms are abundant in the Arsia Mons fan-shaped deposit. These include landforms interpreted as subglacial pillow sheets larger than any known on Earth.”

Read more in Icarus.


Columbia Glacier is Rapidly Retreating: Find out Why

columbia-glacier-retreat gif









“Since the 1980s, Columbia Glacier has lost about half of its thickness, according to NASA. Between then and now, there were years with particularly rapid shedding of ice chunks, creating a “mélange” of floating icebergs that rafted together, as the NASA time-lapse images show.”

Read more here.


$400 per Month to Study Glaciers? Sounds like a good deal!

people studying glaciers










“A student pursuing a doctorate in glaciology makes 47,000 Swiss francs ($49,000) a year in Switzerland, C$20,500 ($18,000) in Canada and about $14,000 in the U.S.”

Read more in Bloomberg.


Roundup: Mars Glaciers, Tourism Up and Body Found

Second Body found on Siachen Glacier in Two Months

“It has been 18 years since Gaya Prasad, a Sepoy in the Indian Army, was proclaimed dead in December 1996. His team was trapped in a minor avalanche on the Siachin Glacier and he was declared dead after prolonged searches couldn’t help in tracing him.”

Read more in India Today.


Record Breaking Glacier Tourism

“With three months left in the year, Glacier National Park already has had the busiest year in its history. Through September, Glacier had 2,238,761 visitors, topping the 2,200,048 visitors for all of 2010, which the park considers the busiest year in its 104-year history.”

Read more here.


New Evidence of Glaciers on Mars

“The morphology and geologic context of the Ius deposit are unique on Mars, and difficult to explain with an evaporative or groundwater mechanism. We propose instead that it was deposited along the margins of a past glacier. Such acid-ice interactions would be similar to those reported along the margins of Svalbard glaciers (arctic Norway), and would represent a new style of acid-sulfate formation on Mars.”

Read the study in the journal Geology. Learn more on GlacierHub about Martian glaciers here.




Far below the ice of a distant moon: Life?

An artist's impression of the European Space Agency's JUICE probe mission to Europa. (ESA/AOES)
An artist’s impression of the European Space Agency’s JUICE probe mission to Europa. (ESA/AOES)

Mars rovers have been tested in Death Valley and Peru. Apollo astronauts used Meteor Crater in Arizona to simulate walking on the moon. Now glaciers have their part to play as stand-ins for outer space.

The Jupiter’s icy moon Europa is the destination, Alaska’s Matanuska glacier is the training ground. Scientists think that an ocean of liquid water exists below Europa’s ice-covered surface. To practice getting to it, NASA researchers are testing a robotic probe called VALKYRIE that can use a laser-powered drill to bore down into the Alaskan glacier.

A separate group of researchers (this time from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) is working on a rover that can swim around underneath the ice. Like the VALKYRIE team, the ice rover is also doing its testing in Alaska.

What’s at stake for projects like these might turn out to be the greatest scientific discovery yet: life outside of earth.

Recently, President Obama requested $15 million to begin developing a mission to Europa for NASA’s 2015 budget. Last month, NASA issued proposals for science equipment on the eventual Europa probe, though it remains to be seen if either the laser drill or the ice rover will make the cut. The mission is tentatively scheduled for the mid-2020s. The European Space Agency is also planning a flyby mission, which will be expected to launch in 2022.

When the two NASA Viking probes landed on Mars in the 1970s, one of the primary mission goals was to search for life outside of Earth. When none was found, attention slowly shifted to Europa, the smallest of Jupiter’s four Galilean moons, as the likeliest source of extraterrestrial life in the solar system.

Brown ridges crisscross Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. Scientists believe a ocean lies beneath the surface that might harbor life. (NASA/PLAN-PIA01641)

Europa’s relatively smooth, icy surface is marked by thousands of reddish-brown scratches, as if someone dragged a rusty fork across a cue ball. Many scientists believe a giant ocean exists just below the ice, made warmer by the tidal pull from Jupiter, which creates friction that generates ice-melting heat. In these relatively temperate waters, alien creatures might be swimming. Life on Europa has been the speculation of science fiction for decades, from Arthur C. Clarke’s 1987 novel 2061: Odyssey Three to the more recent movie Europa Report.

Both the NASA and the ESA missions will try to prove whether or not there is an ocean beneath the surface. Europa does emit water vapor plumes frequently in the same manner that geysers on Earth do. If the ocean turns out to exist, it would contain twice as much water as Earth’s oceans, according to the NASA website.

Scientists lower the VALKYRIE robot into the Alaska's Matanuska glacier. Something similar might be used to drill through Europa's thick ice. (Lisa Grossman/New Scientist)
Scientists lower the VALKYRIE robot into the Alaska’s Matanuska glacier. Something similar might be used to drill through Europa’s thick ice. (Lisa Grossman/New Scientist)

Most scientists and researchers agree that while Mars may have once supported life, Europa may support life right now. Whatever the eventual missions find near Jupiter, there will be a need to run tests on our planet’s own glaciers, conveniently located only a few thousand miles from NASA’s headquarters.

Evidence of glaciers, but no little green men, on Mars

A color image of part of the Nilosyrtis Mensae region of Mars. Flows on the mensa floors contain striae that run parallel to valley walls; where valleys meet, the striae merge, similar to medial moraines on glaciers. (NASA)

When astronomer Percival Lowell looked through his telescope in northern Arizona in 1895, he was convinced that Mars was covered with a network of canals. Lowell published three books on the features of the Red Planet that he believed formed an elaborate system of transporting water from the polar ice caps. The canals, he theorized, where the work of a race of Martians desperately trying to cope with a drying world.

Astronomer Percival Lowell’s drawing of what he believed were water canals on Mars.

While Lowell’s ideas fuelled science fiction more than science, the concept of water on Mars isn’t such a farfetched concept.

In 2008, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter used radar to detect large fields of water ice just below the planet’s rocky surface in the Hellas Basin, located in Mars’ southern hemisphere. Since any exposed water ice on Mars would quickly vaporize, these underground ice fields may be all that’s left of a massive ice sheets that once covered several portions of the planet’s surface a few hundreds of millions of years ago—relatively recently, granted that Mars is more than four billion years old. One of the many features researchers examined is three times the size of Los Angeles and up to a half-mile thick, according to John W. Holt, a scientist from the University of Texas at Austin and the lead author of a 2008 paper in the journal Science.

The MRO’s HiRISE camera photographed several geological features that also point to the presence of glaciers, such as geological lines on the planet’s surface and features known as lobate debris aprons, or piles of rocks found at the base of cliffs. Moving glaciers are the most accepted source of these rock deposits. The glaciers sometimes left tongue-shaped patterns on the surface, evidence that they flowed down mountainsides.

An artist’s conception of glaciers on Mars. (NASA)

When it touched down in 2008, the Phoenix Mars lander was the first probe to reach an area near the icy polar regions (which consist of frozen carbon dioxide, not water). Experiments conducted by the Phoenix showed that water ice did indeed exist just below the surface.

Mars can be located in the night sky this summer, with the handle of the Big Dipper pointing right towards it. The website EarthSky has a handy guide for finding the Red Planet in the late summer sky as well as the four other visible planets.