What Could Explain the Mysterious Ring in Antarctica?

Ever since its discovery was announced earlier this year, the 3 km-wide ring structure discovered on the of Antarctica has been a source of significant interest and speculation. Initially, the discovery was seen as little more than a happy accident that occurred during a survey of East Antarctica by a WEGAS (West-East Gondwana Amalgamation and its Separation) team from the Alfred Wegener Institute.

However, after the team was interviewed by the Brussels-based International Polar Foundation, news of the find and its possible implication spread like wildfire. Initial theories for the possible origin of the ring indicated that it could be the result of the impact of a large meteor. However, since the news broke, team leader Olaf Eisen has offered an alternative explanation: that the ring structure is in fact the result of other ice-shelf processes.

As Eisen indicated in a new entry on the AWI Ice Blog: “Doug MacAyeal, glaciologist from the University of Chicago, put forward the suggestion that the ring structure could be an ice doline.” Ice dolines are round sinkholes that are caused by a pool of melt water formed within the shelf ice. They are formed by the caving in of ice sheets or glaciers, much in the same way that sinkholes form over caves.

“If the melt water drains suddenly,” he wrote, “like it often does, the surface of the glacier is destabilised and does collapse, forming a round crater. Ice depressions like this have been observed in Greenland and on ice shelves of the Antarctic Peninsula since the 1930s.”

A discovery photo of the ringed formation, 2km (1.24 miles) that AWI researchers are proposing is a meteorite impact site. (Credit:Tobias Binder, AWI)
Aerial photo of the ringed formation that the AWI researchers found on the Antarctic ice shelf. Credit: Tobias Binder, AWI

However, in glaciers, these cavities form much more rapidly, as the meltwater created by temperature variations causes englacial lakes or water pockets to from which then drains through the ice sheet. Such dolines have been observed for decades, particularly in Greenland and the Antarctic Peninsula where the ice melts during the summertime.

Initial analysis of satellite images appear to confirm this, as they indicate that the feature could have been present before the supposed impact took place around 25 years ago. In addition, relying on data from Google Maps and Google Earth, the WEGAS (West-East Gondwana Amalgamation and its Separation) team observed that the 3 km ring is accompanied by other, smaller rings.

Such formations are inconsistent with meteorite impacts, which generally leave a single crater with a raised center. And as a general rule, these craters also measure between ten to twenty times the size of the meteorite itself – in this case, that would mean a meteorite 200 meters in diameter. This would mean that, had the ring structure been caused by a meteorite, it would have been the largest Antarctic meteor impact on record.

It is therefore understandable why the announcement of this ring structure triggered such speculation and interest. Meteorite impacts, especially record-breaking ones are nothing if not a hot news item. Too bad this does not appear to be the case.

Location of the ring formation on the ice shelf off the Antarctic continent. The site is on the King Baudouin Ice Shelf. (Map Credits: Google Maps, NOAA)
Location of the ring formation on the King Baudouin Ice Shelf off the Antarctic continent. Credit: Google Maps, NOAA

However, the possibility that the ring structure is the result of an ice doline raises a new host of interesting questions. For one, it would indicate that dolines are much more common in East Antarctica than previously thought. Ice dolines were first noticed in the regions of West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula, where rapid warming is known to take place.

East Antarctica, by contrast, has long been understood to be the coldest, windiest and driest landmass on the planet. Knowing that such a place could produce rapid warming that would lead to the creation of a significant englacial lake would certainly force scientists to rethink what they know about this continent.

“To form an ice doline this size, it would need a considerable reservoir of melt water,” Eisen said. “Therefore we would need to ask, where did all this melt water come from? Which melting processes have caused such an amount of water and how does the melting fit into the climate pattern of East Antarctica?”

In the coming months, Eisen and the AWI scientists plant to analyze the data from the Polar 6 (Eisen’s mission) measurements thoroughly, in the hopes of getting all the facts straight. Also, Jan Lenaerts – a Belgian glaciologist with AWI – is planning an land-based expedition to the site; which unfortunately due to the short Antarctic summer season and the preparation time needed won’t be taking place until the end of 2015.

AWI's Polar 6 aircraft takes off from the runway at the Princess Elisabeth Antarctica research station. © International Polar Foundation / Jos Van Hemelrijck
AWI’s Polar 6 aircraft takes off from the runway at the Princess Elisabeth Antarctica research station.
Credit: International Polar Foundation / Jos Van Hemelrijck

But what is especially interesting, according to Eisen, is the rapid pace at which the debate surrounding the ring structure occurred. Within days of their announcement, the WEGAS team was astounded by the nature of the debate taking place in the media and on the internet (particularly Facebook), bringing together glaciologists from all around the world.

As Eisen put it in his blog entry, “For the WEGAS team, however, our experience of the last few days has shown that modern scientific discussion is not confined to the ivory towers of learned meetings, technical papers, and lecture halls, but that the public and social media play a tremendous role. For us, cut off from the modern world amongst the eternal ice, this new science seems to have happened at an almost breathtaking pace.”

This activity brought the discussion about the nature of the ring structure forward by several weeks, he claims, focusing attention on the true causes of the surprise discovery itself and comparing and contrasting possible theories.

Further Reading: Helmholtz Gemeinschaft, AWI

Did a House-Sized Meteorite Create This Mysterious Circle in Antarctica?

Endless blinding white ice as far as the eye can see. This is the common scene from the window of planes delivering researchers to Antarctica. However, this is not always the case. While there are mountain ranges and valleys, for a recent research expedition, a large ringed structure came into view on the King Baudouin ice shelf as they were beginning aerial surveys.

Geophysicist Christian Mueller with the Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) in Germany, was looking out the window of an instrument laden plane when the previously unknown ringed formation, 2000 meters (1.24 miles) in diameter, came into view. Looking into research publications, he found evidence that this may be a meteorite impact event from 2004.

Research team members from Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany embark from a landing site at Princess Elisabeth, Antarctica. They discovered something totally unexpected - a large ringed formation on a nearby ice shelf.  (Credit: AWI)
Research team members from Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany embark from a landing site at Princess Elisabeth, Antarctica. They discovered something totally unexpected – a large ringed formation on a nearby ice shelf. (Credit: AWI)

The discovery occurred on December 20th from the AWI Polar 6 aircraft as they were flying over the Princess Ragnhild Coast. The formation is located on the King Baudouin Ice Shelf not far from their landing site at Princess Elizabeth station.

Two studies were found in the literature by the researchers which pointed to a possible impact event over east Antarctica in 2004. Triangulation of infrasound monitoring data pointed to the area where the ringed formation is located. The infrasound monitoring sites are located worldwide and primarily used to detect nuclear testing events. On February 15, 2013, the same type of data was used to better understand the asteroid explosion over Chelyabinsk, Russia.

Location of the ring formation on the ice shelf off the Antarctic continent. The site is on the King Baudouin Ice Shelf. (Map Credits: Google Maps, NOAA)
Location of the ring formation on the ice shelf off the Antarctic continent. The site is on the King Baudouin Ice Shelf. (Map Credits: Google Maps, NOAA)

The second study involved local observations. A separate set of researchers, located at Davis Station, an Australian base off the coast of east Antarctica, reported seeing a dust trail in the upper atmosphere during the same time.

Researcher Mueller stated in the AWI provided video, “I looked out of the window, and I saw an unusual structure on the surface of the ice. There was some broken ice looking like icebergs, which is very unusual on a normally flat ice shelf, surrounded by a large, wing-shaped, circular structure.” Altogether, the AWI researchers said that they make the claim “without any confidence.” They intend to request funding to make followup studies to determine its origin.

Cheryl Santa Maria, of the Digital Reporter, also reported that there are survey images showing this structure that date back 25 years. Furthermore, a story by LiveScience quoted Dr. Peter Brown of Centre of Planetary Science and Exploration at the University of Western Ontario as stating that the size of a meteorite is roughly 5 to 10% of the impact crater’s diameter. This would indicate an impactor about 100 meters in size and much larger than the estimated size of the event as estimated by infrasound data from 2004.

The infrasound data estimated that the asteroid was probably the size of a house, about 10 meters (33 feet) across. In contrast, the asteroid that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, had an estimated size of 20 meters. Dr. Brown was quoted as expressing doubt that the formation is an impact site. The effects of a 100 meter object would have been much more distinctive and likely more readily detected by researchers located in eastern Antarctica. Thus, reporting of the ring formation by the AWI researchers is bringing to light additional information and comments from experts that raises doubts. Follow up studies will be necessary to determine the true origins of the ringed structured.

Martian Meteorite Could Have Contained Ancient Water And Life, NASA Paper Says

Could this meteorite show evidence of ancient water and life on Mars? That’s one possibility raised in a new paper led by NASA and including members of a team who made a contentious claim about Martian microfossils in another meteorite 18 years ago.

“This is no smoking gun,” stated lead author Lauren White, who is based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, of the findings released this week. “We can never eliminate the possibility of contamination in any meteorite. But these features are nonetheless interesting and show that further studies of these meteorites should continue.”

The new, peer-reviewed work focuses on tunnels and microtunnels the scientists said they found in a meteorite called Yamato 00593. The meteorite is about 30 pounds (13.7 kilograms) and was discovered in Antarctica in 2000. The structures were found deep within the rock, NASA stated, and “suggest biological processes might have been at work on Mars hundreds of millions of years ago.”

Scientists believe the 1.3-billion-year-old rock left Mars about 12 million years ago after an impact threw it off the surface. It reached Antarctica 50,000 years ago and after it was found in 2000, was analyzed and believed to be a “nakhlite”, or a kind of Martian meteorite. “Martian meteoritic material is distinguished from other meteorites and materials from Earth and the moon by the composition of the oxygen atoms within the silicate minerals and trapped Martian atmospheric gases,” NASA stated.

An asteroid impacts ancient Mars and send rocks hurtling to space - some reach Earth
An asteroid impacts ancient Mars and send rocks hurtling to space – some reach Earth

There are two things in the meteorite that caught the attention of scientists. One is the aforementioned tunnels and microtunnels, which they say are similar to those altered by bacteria in basalt on Earth. The second is tiny, carbon-enriched spherules (in the nanometer to micrometer range) between layers in the rock — structures similar to another Martian meteorite (Nakhla) that struck Egypt in 1911. In that case, the rock was recovered quickly after landing and still had the same spherules, the researchers noted.

The authors said it’s possible that these structures could be explained by other mechanisms besides life, but said the similarities to what they have found on Earth “imply the intriguing possibility that the Martian features were formed by biotic activity.”

The research team includes NASA’s David McKay (who died a year ago), Everett Gibson and Kathie Thomas-Keptra. In 1996, these same scientists (then led by McKay) found “biogenic evidence” in a meteorite called Allen Hills 84001, but other science teams have disagreed with the findings. There have been a lot of papers about this particular meteorite, and you can read more about the controversy in this 2011 Universe Today article.

Of note, since 1996 NASA and other agencies have found plenty of evidence for past water on Mars, which might throw the findings in a different light. What do you think? You can read the full paper on the new research in the journal Astrobiology.

Source: NASA

Antarctic Sea Ice Takes Over More Of The Ocean Than Ever Before

Antarctica’s sea ice is creeping further out in the ocean! New data from a Japanese satellite shows that sea ice surrounding the southern continent in late September reached out over 7.51 million square miles (19.47 million square kilometers).

The extent — a slight increase over 2012’s record of 7.50 million square miles (19.44 million square km) — is the largest recorded instance of Antarctica sea ice since satellite records began, NASA said. Data was recorded using the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer 2 (AMSR2) sensor on the Global Change Observation Mission 1st-Water (GCOM-W1) satellite.

“While researchers continue to study the forces driving the growth in sea ice extent, it is well understood that multiple factors—including the geography of Antarctica, the region’s winds, as well as air and ocean temperatures—all affect the ice,” NASA stated.

Update — see below for a more detailed description of why this is an important clue that climate change IS happening.

“Geography and winds are thought to be especially important. Unlike the Arctic, where sea ice is confined in a basin, Antarctica is a continent surrounded by open ocean. Since its sea ice is unconfined, it is particularly sensitive to changes in the winds. As noted by the National Snow and Ice Data Center, some research has suggested that changes in Antarctic sea ice are caused in part by a strengthening of the westerly winds that flow unhindered in a circle above the Southern Ocean.”

For those thinking that increased sea ice means we can relax about climate change, this humorous video explains the difference between land ice (glaciers) and sea ice (which is generated from snow, rainfall and fresh water). It’s definitely worth four minutes of your time. The part about sea ice starts around 2:45.

UPDATE: Just to clarify:

Here’s what the graphic says: “The water around Antarctica is more fresh than it has been in previous years because of increased snow and rainfall as well as in increased contribution of fresh water from melting land ice. This fresh cold water is less dense than the warmer, saltier water below. Previously, that warm salty water would rise, melting the sea ice. But now, bcaus of the lighter fresh water on top, there is less mixing of the ocean’s layer and the surface stays cooler longer. “

And so, there is increased fresh water because of the melting land ice – due to climate change. There is a fundamental difference between sea ice and land ice. Antarctic land ice is the ice which has accumulated over thousands of years on the Antarctica landmass through snowfall. Antarctic sea ice is entirely different as it is ice which forms in salt water during the winter and almost entirely melts again in the summer.

Importantly, when land ice melts and flows into the oceans global sea levels rise on average; when sea ice melts sea levels do not change measurably but other parts of the climate system are affected, like increased absorption of solar energy by the darker oceans.

See this article on SkepticalScience for additional information.

Source: NASA Earth Observatory

These Antarctic Research Photos Look Like Exploration on Another Planet

Some day, human explorers will land a spacecraft on the surface of Europa, Enceladus, Titan, or some other icy world and investigate first-hand the secrets hidden beneath its frozen surface. When that day comes — and it can’t come too soon for me! — it may look a lot like this.

One of a series of amazing photos by Stefan Hendricks taken during the Antarctic Winter Ecosystem & Climate Study (AWECS), a study of Antarctica’s sea ice conducted by the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, the image above shows researchers working on the Antarctic ice during a winter snowstorm. It’s easy to imagine them on the night-side surface of Europa, with the research vessel Polarstern standing in for a distant illuminated lander (albeit rather oversized).

Hey, one can dream!

One of the goals of the campaign, called CryoVex, was to look at how ESA’s CryoSat mission can be used to understand the thickness of sea ice in Antarctica. The extent of the Antarctic sea ice in winter is currently more than normal, which could be linked to changing atmospheric patterns.

Antarctica’s massive shelves of sea ice in winter are quite dramatic landscapes, and remind us that there are very alien places right here on our own planet.

See this and more photos from the mission on the ESA website (really, go check them out!)

What Does Antarctica Look Like Under the Ice?

Although it sits isolated at the “bottom of the world” Antarctica is one of the most influential continents on Earth, affecting weather, climate, and ocean current patterns over the entire planet. But Antarctica is also one of the most enigmatic landmasses too, incredibly remote, extremely harsh, and covered by a layer of ice over 2 km thick. And as Earth’s global temperature continues to climb steadily higher, the future of ice in Antarctica — a continent half again as large as the contiguous United States — is a big concern for scientists… but in order to know exactly how its ice will behave to changing conditions, they need to know what’s under it.

This is where the British Antarctic Survey — using data gathered by NASA’s ICESat and Operation IceBridge missions — comes in, giving us a better view of what lies beneath the southern continent’s frozen veil.

A new dataset called Bedmap2 gives a clearer picture of Antarctica from the ice surface down to the bedrock below. Bedmap2 is a significant improvement on the previous collection of Antarctic data — known as Bedmap — that was produced more than 10 years ago. The product was a result of work led by the British Antarctic Survey, where researchers compiled decades worth of geophysical measurements, such as surface elevation measurements from NASA’s Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) and ice thickness data collected by Operation IceBridge.

Bedmap2, like the original Bedmap, is a collection of three datasets—surface elevation, ice thickness and bedrock topography. Both Bedmap and Bedmap2 are laid out as grids covering the entire continent, but with a tighter grid spacing Bedmap2 includes many surface and sub-ice features too small to be seen in the previous dataset. Additionally, the extensive use of GPS data in more recent surveys improves the precision of the new dataset.

Improvements in resolution, coverage and precision will lead to more accurate calculations of ice volume and potential contribution to sea level rise.

Ice sheet researchers use computer models to simulate how ice sheets will respond to changes in ocean and air temperatures. An advantage of these simulations is that they allow testing of many different climate scenarios, but the models are limited by how accurate the data on ice volume and sub-ice terrain are.

Only the tips of many of Antarctica's mountains are visible above thousands of feet of ice. (Oct. 2012 IceBridge photo. Credit: NASA / Christy Hansen)
Only the tips of many of Antarctica’s mountains are visible above thousands of feet of ice. (Oct. 2012 IceBridge photo. Credit: NASA / Christy Hansen)

“In order to accurately simulate the dynamic response of ice sheets to changing environmental conditions, such as temperature and snow accumulation, we need to know the shape and structure of the bedrock below the ice sheets in great detail,” said Michael Studinger, IceBridge project scientist at NASA Goddard.

Knowing what the bedrock looks like is important for ice sheet modeling because features in the bed control the ice’s shape and affect how it moves. Ice will flow faster on a downhill slope, while an uphill slope or bumpy terrain can slow an ice sheet down or even hold it in place temporarily. “The shape of the bed is the most important unknown, and affect how ice can flow,” said Nowicki. “You can influence how honey spreads on your plate, by simply varying how you hold your plate.” The vastly improved bedrock data included in Bedmap2 should provide the level of detail needed for models to be realistic.

Bedmap2 data of Antarctica's bedrock. Verical elevation has been exaggerated by 17x. (NASA/GSFC)
Bedmap2 data of Antarctica’s bedrock. Verical elevation has been exaggerated by 17x. (NASA/GSFC)

“It will be an important resource for the next generation of ice sheet modelers, physical oceanographers and structural geologists,” said Peter Fretwell, BAS scientist and lead author.

The BAS’ work was published recently in the journal The Cryosphere. Read more on the original release by George Hale here.

Source: NASA Earth

Super Good at Collecting Data, Massive Science Balloon Breaks Records

Super-TIGER prepares for launch from Antarctica.

NASA’s Super-TIGER science balloon landed Friday at a frigid and remote base in Antarctica after setting two duration records while gathering data about cosmic rays. There’s so much data that it will take scientists about two years to analyze, according to NASA.

Launched December 8, 2012 from the Long Duration Balloon site near McMurdo Station in Antarctica, the Super Trans-Iron Galactic Element Recorder balloon spent 55 days, 1 hour and 34 minutes aloft, shattering records previously set in 2009 by another NASA balloon for longest flight by a balloon of its size. The 39-million cubic foot balloon, spent most of its time cruising four times higher than commercial airlines at about 127,000 feet (almost 39 kilometers). The instrument is managed by Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

“Scientific balloons give scientists the ability to gather critical science data for a long duration at a very low relative cost,” said Vernon Jones, NASA’s Balloon Program scientist, in the press release. “Super-TIGER is scientific ballooning at its best.”

Super-TIGER measured rare heavy elements, such as iron, as they bombarded Earth from the Milky Way. The instrument detected about 50 million of these high-energy cosmic rays. Scientists hope the data from the mission will help understand where the energetic nuclei are produced and how they achieve such high energies.

NASA had three long-duration balloon missions in the summer skies of Antarctica. SuperTIGER was joined by BLAST and EBEX. All three balloons launched from the site near McMurdo Station in December. BLAST, or Balloon Borne Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope launched Christmas Day and measured the polarized dust in star-forming regions helping astronomers determine if magnetic fields are a dominant force over turbulence in star-forming regions of the galaxy. BLAST’s mission lasted just over 16 days.

EBEX, the heaviest scientific payload borne aloft by a NASA balloon, measures cosmic microwave background radiation. The mission lasted 25 days and reached altitudes of 118,000 feet (or 36 kilometers).

Antarctica, it turns out, is ideal for these types of long-duration balloon missions with sparse populations and anticyclonic (east to west, counter-clockwise in the southern hemisphere) wind patterns in the stratosphere.

Source: NASA

New South Pole Marker Honors Planets, Pluto, and Armstrong

The new geographic South Pole marker that stands at 90º S latitude. (Credit: Jeffrey Donenfeld)

Because the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station sits atop a layer of moving ice almost 2 miles thick, the location of the marker for the Earth’s geographic South Pole needs to be relocated regularly. Tradition has this done on New Year’s Day, and so this past January 1 saw the unveiling of the newest South Pole marker: a beautiful brass-and-copper design created by Station machinist Derek Aboltins.

pole-marker-top-closeup-1The top of the marker has seven small discs that represent the planets in the positions they would be in on Jan. 1, 2013, as well as two larger discs representing the setting Sun and Moon. Next to the Moon disc are the engraved words “Accomplishment & Modesty,” a nod to the first man on the Moon.

“This was a reference to honor Neil Armstrong, as he passed away when I was making this section with the moon,” Aboltins said.

And for folks who might think the planet count on the new marker is one too few, a surprise has been tucked away on the reverse side.

“For those of you who still think Pluto should be a planet, you’ll find it included underneath, just to keep everyone happy,” Aboltins said. “Bring back Pluto, I say!”

And so, on the underside of the marker along with the signatures of South Pole Station researchers and workers, is one more disc — just for the distant “demoted” dwarf planet.

pole-marker-underside

Underside of the South Pole marker (Credit: Jeffrey Donenfeld)

“For those of you who still think Pluto should be a planet, you’ll find it included underneath, just to keep everyone happy!”

– Derek Aboltins, designer and machinist

(See high resolution versions of these images here.)

The marker was placed during a ceremony on the ice on Jan. 1, during which time the previous flag marker was removed and put into its new position.

8375171352_5f2b446640_b

(Photo credit: Jeffrey Donenfeld)

According to The Antarctic Sun:

“Almost all hands were present for the ceremony, including station manager Bill Coughran, winter site manager Weeks Heist, and National Science Foundation representative Vladimir Papitashvili. The weather was sunny and a warm at just below minus 14 degrees Fahrenheit.”

(Even though it’s mid-summer in Antarctica, “warm” is clearly a relative term!)

Read more about this and other Antarctic news on The Antarctic Sun site, and see more photos from Antarctica by Jeffrey Donenfeld here.

_____________________

Named for explorers Roald Amundsen and Robert F. Scott, who attained the South Pole in 1911 and 1912, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station stands at an elevation of 2,835 meters (9,306 feet) on Antarctica’s ice sheet, which is about 2,700 meters (9,000 feet) thick at that location. The station drifts with the ice sheet at about 10 meters (33 feet) each year. Research is conducted at the station in the fields of astronomy, astrophysics, glaciology, geophysics and seismology, ocean and climate systems, biology, and medicine.

The Most Remote Workplace on Earth

ESA’s Proba-1 satellite imaged the French-Italian Concordia base on November 21, 2012 (ESA)

Located in one of the loneliest locations on Earth, the French-Italian Concordia station was captured on high-resolution camera by ESA’s Proba-1 microsatellite last month, showing the snow-covered base and 25 square kilometers of the virtually featureless expanse of Antarctic ice surrounding it.

A cluster of scientific research buildings situated 3233 meters above sea level in the Antarctic interior, Concordia is one of the only permanently-crewed stations on the southern continent. Around 12–15 researchers and engineers spend months — sometimes over a year —  in isolation at Concordia, where during the winter months there are no deliveries, no chance of evacuation, temperatures below -80 ºC (-112 ºF) and the next closest station is 600 km (370 miles) away. It’s like working on another planet.

And that’s precisely why they’re there.

The researchers who live and work at Concordia are there because of the station’s incredible remoteness and harsh conditions. This allows them to study not only the pristine Antarctic ice beneath their feet but also how humans behave in such an environment, where a small team must learn to work together and merely venturing outside can be a hazardous task.

It’s the next closest thing to an actual outpost on Mars, or the Moon. Even the astronauts on the ISS aren’t as far removed from the rest of the world.

(Although the night sky views from Concordia can be comparably stunning.)

Concordia Base boasts some of the clearest, darkest — and coldest — skies on Earth (ESA/IPEV/PNRA – A. Salam)

Read more: Milky Way to Concordia Base… Come In, Concordia Base…

“Boredom and monotony are the enemy,” wrote ESA-sponsored medical researcher Dr. Alex Salam, regarding his 2009 13-month stay. “The darkness has a habit of sucking the motivation out of even the hardiest. But despite the effects the darkness can have on sleep, mood and cognitive performance, there is something inherently special about the Antarctic night. The heavens present a view that many stargazers can only ever dream of. You just have to try and catch a glimpse of the stars before your eyelashes freeze together!

“Seeing the station from a distance with the Milky Way towering far above it never failed to make me feel both awe inspired and simultaneously insignificant.”

And another recent long-term resident of Concordia, Dr. Alexander Kumar, who departed the base on November 15, shared this reflection as his year-long term was approaching its end:

“Concordia has, in removing me from civilisation where sometimes it is harder to step back, enabled me to see the bigger picture, provide a unique experience and reminded me of somethings, setting a course and direction for the future… I think once you come to Antarctica, drawn to it under a spell like a seaman to a mermaid, you never can break the link you form with this raw, rugged and ruthlessly beautiful and enticing continent.”

 The Sun returns to the Antarctic plateau (ESA/IPEV/PNRA – A. Salam)

“It’s the closest thing I’ll ever have to living on another planet.”

– Dr. Alex Salam

Read more about Concordia on the newly-redesigned ESA site here.

In orbit for over 11 years, Proba-1’s unique images are used by hundreds of scientific teams worldwide. To date its main Compact High Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (CHRIS) has acquired over 20,000 environmental science images used by a total of 446 research groups in 60 countries.

In an Isolated, Ice-Covered Antarctic Lake Far Below Freezing, Life is Found

Lake Vida lies within one of Antarctica’s cold, arid McMurdo Dry Valleys (Photo: Desert Research Institute)

Even inside an almost completely frozen lake within Antarctica’s inland dry valleys, in dark, salt-laden and sub-freezing water full of nitrous oxide, life thrives… offering a clue at what might one day be found in similar environments elsewhere in the Solar System.


Researchers from NASA, the Desert Research Institute in Nevada, the University of Illinois at Chicago and nine other institutions have discovered colonies of bacteria living in one of the most isolated places on Earth: Antarctica’s Lake Vida, located in Victoria Valley — one of the southern continent’s incredibly arid McMurdo Dry Valleys.

These organisms seem to be thriving despite the harsh conditions. Covered by 20 meters (65 feet) of ice, the water in  Lake Vida is six times saltier than seawater and contains the highest levels of nitrous oxide ever found in a natural body of water. Sunlight doesn’t penetrate very far below the frozen surface, and due to the hypersaline conditions and pressure of the ice water temperatures can plunge to a frigid -13.5 ºC (8 ºF).

Yet even within such a seemingly inhospitable environment Lake Vida is host to a “surprisingly diverse and abundant assemblage of bacteria” existing within water channels branching through the ice, separated from the sun’s energy and isolated from exterior influences for an estimated 3,000 years.

Originally thought to be frozen solid, ground penetrating radar surveys in 1995 revealed a very salty liquid layer (a brine) underlying the lake’s year-round 20-meter-thick ice cover.

“This study provides a window into one of the most unique ecosystems on Earth,” said Dr. Alison Murray, one of the lead authors of the team’s paper, a molecular microbial ecologist and polar researcher and a member of 14 expeditions to the Southern Ocean and Antarctic continent. “Our knowledge of geochemical and microbial processes in lightless icy environments, especially at subzero temperatures, has been mostly unknown up until now. This work expands our understanding of the types of life that can survive in these isolated, cryoecosystems and how different strategies may be used to exist in such challenging environments.”

Sterile environments had to be set up within tents on Lake Vida’s surface so the researchers could be sure that the core samples they were drilling were pristine, and weren’t being contaminated with any introduced organisms.

According to a NASA press release, “geochemical analyses suggest chemical reactions between the brine and the underlying iron-rich sediments generate nitrous oxide and molecular hydrogen. The latter, in part, may provide the energy needed to support the brine’s diverse microbial life.”

“This system is probably the best analog we have for possible ecosystems in the subsurface waters of Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Jupiter’s moon Europa.”

– Chris McKay, co-author, NASA’s Ames Research Center

What’s particularly exciting is the similarity between conditions found in ice-covered Antarctic lakes and those that could be found on other worlds in our Solar System. If life could survive in Lake Vida, as harsh and isolated as it is, could it also be found beneath the icy surface of Europa, or within the (hypothesized) subsurface oceans of Enceladus? And what about the ice caps of Mars? Might there be similar channels of super-salty liquid water running through Mars’ ice, with microbes eking out an existence on iron sediments?

“It’s plausible that a life-supporting energy source exists solely from the chemical reaction between anoxic salt water and the rock,” explained Dr. Christian Fritsen, a systems microbial ecologist and Research Professor in DRI’s Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences and co-author of the study.

“If that’s the case,” Murray added, “this gives us an entirely new framework for thinking of how life can be supported in cryoecosystems on earth and in other icy worlds of the universe.”

Read more: Europa’s Hidden Great Lakes May Harbor Life

More research is planned to study the chemical interactions between the sediment and the brine as well as the genetic makeup of the microbial communities themselves.

The research was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). Read more on the DRI press release here, and watch a video below showing highlights from the field research.

Funding for the research was supported jointly by NSF and NASA. Images courtesy the Desert Research Institute. Dry valley image credit: NASA/Landsat. Europa image: NASA/Ted Stryk.)