Press Release

NASA Astrobiology Institute Europa Focus Group Visits Arctic Ice-Field

By SpaceRef Editor
May 19, 2003
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In this special Feature, NAI Senior Scientist David
Morrison recounts a recent trip to Barrow, Alaska with the
Europa Focus Group.

In early May, the NAI Europa Focus group took a field trip
to the Arctic Ocean ice cap at Barrow, Alaska. The trip
was planned and led by Professors Ron Greeley of Arizona
State University, the Chair of the Europa Focus Group, and
Hajo Eicken of the University of Alaska, an expert on
ocean ice and on the Barrow region. The conference’s
objective was to gain direct experience with sea ice and to
look for possible analogues with Jupiter’s moon Europa and
other icy moons in the outer solar system.

Twenty scientists interested in Europa attended the
Ice-Field Conference, covering disciplines primarily in
geology, planetary science and microbiology. Three
students were provided special funds from NAI to attend,
and I went representing NAI Central. During our three
days in Barrow, we spent two mornings in science
sessions, made two trips onto the ice (one for a full day),
chartered small planes to view ice features from above,
and met with elders of the local Inupiat Eskimo culture.

At 72 degrees north latitude on Alaska’s North Slope,
Barrow is a very isolated community, reachable only by air
except during the short summer when the ice breaks free.
Barrow is the northern-most point in the U.S. There is no
harbor. A Distant Early Warning radar and some modest
research facilities are all that are left from a once
substantial U.S. military presence during the cold war. In
mid-May, the sun sets for only a couple of hours and the
temperature rarely rises above freezing; indeed, the ocean
ice is still forming. The Inupiat maintain some of their
traditional lifestyle, but with the substitution of snow
machines for dogs as a means of crossing the ice. At this
season they are hunting the large bowhead whale, still
using small skin boats, fur-lined sealskin parkas, and
hand-thrown harpoons, in combination with GPS
receivers and cell phones.

The ice fields themselves are awesome–a grand
wilderness. I can best compare them (psychologically) to
the Sahara desert, a windswept, trackless and constantly
shifting landscape that seems to go on forever. We were all
impressed by the variety of ice and the complex
morphology on the ice flows. We traveled on the ice with
snow machines (snowmobiles) and sledges–I spent
much of my time standing on the back of a sledge holding
tight as we negotiated smooth snow and rough ice. The
newest ice is flat (and thin), but with age it fractures and
builds up pressure ridges and hills several meters high,
made of upended slabs of ice. In addition to traveling
across the ice, we drilled several ice cores, of interest
primarily to the biologists in our group. Even in this harsh
environment, the bottoms of the cores were green with
photosynthetic microbes. We were accompanied by local
guides, who also carried guns to protect us from polar
bears. We saw lots of bear tracks, but no actual bears
(unfortunately).

For someone acclimated to the Mediterranean climate of
California, dealing with cold itself was an interesting
experience. When the wind blew, the chill factor was well
below zero degrees Fahrenheit, and a facemask was
necessary to keep skin protected. This is a polar desert
with low precipitation rates, but the wind is continually
redistributing the light, dry snow to make fantastic drifts
and dunes.

Our flights gave us a complementary perspective. The two
small planes swooped to within 100 meters of the surface
and performed figure eights so we could see the interesting
ice features in the Beaufort Sea northeast of Barrow.

We also were lucky to be addressed by two of the local
elders, both of whom grew up in the traditional culture
before World War 2. One had been a reindeer herder, the
other a hunter and trapper–spending months alone in the
wilderness. Today they are a valuable resource on
changing conditions, where global warming is having major
effects on the behavior of the Arctic sea ice. They told us
that the ice is both thinner and less predictable than it was
in previous decades.

While we learned a great deal about our own planet, we
must be careful in applying this knowledge to icy moons
such as Europa. There are superficial similarities, but the
ice on Europa is thousands of times thicker and probably
millions of years older than the sea ice near Barrow. Trip
leader Ron Greeley noted that one purpose of this field trip
was for us to see and experience the great complexity of
Arctic sea ice, and thus to be more wary of making
assumptions about other worlds based on gross
appearances alone. Perhaps one thing we learned was
humility.

You can get more information (and read a similar diary by
Matt Pruis) at the Astrobiology Magazine’s Europa Diary
1, Landing on Alien Terrain:

http://nai.arc.nasa.gov/news_stories/news_detail.cfm?ID=257

More information on NAI’s Focus Groups is available,
including the Europa Focus Group:

http://nai.arc.nasa.gov/institute/focus_groups.cfm

SpaceRef staff editor.