Status Report

Keith Cowing’s Devon Island Journal 13 July 2003: Very, Very Old Dirt

By SpaceRef Editor
July 14, 2003
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Click on Image for larger view. Images Copyright
NASA HMP-2003/SpaceRef

HMP image

Arctic Poppies growing on a frost heave formed from lake sediment. These deposits are an example of “patterned ground” seenin polar regions that results after repeated cycles of freeze/thaw.
HMP image

Geologists Ozinski (bending) and Parnell consult while journalist Bill Fox takes field notes.
HMP image

Hole dug into sediment exposing ~20 million year old deposits.
HMP image

Keith sitting inside Haughton Crater atop sediment deposit. In background are grassy areas grazed by Musk Ox.

Further Information

  • NASA Haughton-Mars Project

  • Mars Institute

  • SpaceRef Mars on Earth coverage

  • Arthur Clarke Mars Greenhouse



  • Keith Cowing’s Devon Island Journal: Summer 2002

  • SpaceRef

  • Finally, some cool/cold weather. Last night, just after dinner, we started to see clouds moving in from the West. They brought a drop in temperatures and a noticeable increase in winds. By the time I went to bed it was borderline chilly. It remained overcast until 2:00 AM and then brightened up, but it was still cool all night. For the first time since I arrived, I actually slept inside my sleeping bag. When I woke up the sun was shining brightly and my tent was 27C inside. It was somewhat cooler (18 C to be exact) outside. Based on the weather forecast, I doubt it will get any colder than this for at least the next week or so.

    We got more supplies in last night including the windmill and solar arrays that will be used to power greenhouse systems over the coming winter. Meanwhile, installation of sensors and heaters inside the greenhouse continues.

    We also have several geologists in camp now. As such, daily forays into the field are now being undertaken. Today I went out on a long traverse into Haughton Crater with geologists Gordon “Oz” Osinksi and John Parnell. Their plan was to visit several locations to identify paleolake sediments for further study. They were also going to check one promising location out for fossils. With me was fellow journalist Bill Fox – a veteran of last year’s field season as well.

    The traverse followed a path that I had taken several days before – and several times last season. However we went much further into the crater than I have ever been before. Our first stop was at what I would describe as a pile of dirt sitting amidst a landscape that is mostly rock and gravel. This deposit was sediment that had more or less stayed put since it was first deposited.

    Oz dug into the deposit with a shovel to have closer look. About half a meter down is material that, to me, is astonishingly old. In this case this sediment was deposited when a lake (or lakes) occupied Haughton crater some 20 or so million years ago, some time after the impact that formed the crater in the first place. This material had been sitting there ever since. I was rather astonished to see dirt that had not moved in such a long time and still was, indeed, dirt – and not rock.

    This is of course, one of the compelling reasons why this place is such an interesting analog to what might be found on Mars. There, things such as this may well have been preserved, more or less untouched, for vastly greater periods of time – thus dangling the prospect of a initmate look at what Mars may once have been like.

    After spending some time in this location we moved on deeper into the crater. We drove past Trinity Lake and the Ejecta Block I had visited last week and then down deeper than I had ever been.

    Things are still melting – and on Devon Island that means one thing: mud. The established “roads” we use have been placed so as to allow teams to move about from one place to another while minimizing erosion and environmental impact. While you strive to follow the person ahead of you, you often have to sway a foot or two to avoid something that is in the ruts of the person(s) ahead of you. With mud this has caused me some problems. Today I was the last of four.

    The first three times I got stuck I jumped off of the ATV into mud, which slowly but inexorably devoured me up, to mid-calf. As that was going on I revved the throttle with one hand and walked the ATV out of its stuck position – minus my weight. Kind of like leading an unruly pony around a corral. The fourth time I got stuck and it was permanent. By the time the rest of my team got back, I was getting close to my kneecaps in mud.

    Oz pulled around and got one of the towropes each traverse team needs to carry with them. I put the ATV into reverse, and with the help of Oz pulling and John helping me push we got my ATV out. Needless to say I was a muddy mess and stayed that way until I got a chance to wash myself off.

    Our next stop was another sediment deposit and a stream, which had exposed some fossiliferous (fossil-bearing) rock. Oz and John found a few promising specimens. Mostly, though Bill and I walked around looking at rocks while John and Oz oohed and ahhed over the very same rocks.

    Eventually we got close to dinnertime and began our trek back to Base Camp. On the way back I got to thinking what it would be like to do this day after day after day – on mars. To be certain, there are not likely to be many instance of mud entrapment – but there are likely to be other hazards that would be encountered on a regular basis. Given the landscape, it is not at all hard to insert a mental red filter and picture yourself bouncing around on Mars.

    I am now back in the Science Tent tending to various chores including this journal entry. The weather not withstanding, this camp is rather comfortable. If you can put up with cold and bad weather (we had a lot last year) and sleeping in a tent, this place has a number of amenities that serve to dampen your feeling of isolation.

    Of course, having other people around is the most important. The smallest number I have ever experienced for any prolonged period of time is a dozen. Often it is several times that. AS such group dynamics are much more self-adjusting. People aside other things make this place tolerable for weeks at a time. When it is available, our communication capability allows us to remain in touch with the world we left down south. Satellite phones (expensive – and reserved for official use) and various Internet utilities allow us to stay in roughly normal touch electronically.

    Although I have to stay in touch with some aspects of the news on a daily basis, I find myself simply ignoring general news. While I may know that a certain sensor on some spacecraft went bad a few hours ago, I can remain ignorant of some major political or international news for days or more. For some reason, I don’t seek it out. When I got home last year I was rather surprised at the things that had happened while I was here for a month – even though I could have simply gone to and learned about it like everyone else. I am certain that if I were here for months – not weeks, that this would soon change.

    I do stay in touch with my wife and some other members of my family and friends via instant messenger. This usually happens on a constant basis. However when comms go down – some thing not infrequent here (its amazing that we can even do this at all!) – the isolation can get annoying. The longer it goes it can lead to a little anxiety. This is what really drives home just how far away and isolated we are. The computer sits there, still functioning in every way except one: touching the real world.

    Other things tend to take the edge off of the remoteness. This year, as well as last year, I made certain to load my iPod MP3 player with enough music to cover any mood or moment. My collection runs the gamut from symphonies, Celtic tunes, and Beach Boys to Blink 182, movie scores, and Gregorian chants. I think I am well-covered for any possible music genre urge. There are times, such as listening to pieces by Pat Metheny, when I can simply become oblivious to the fact that I am sitting in a tent atop permafrost a few ours flight time from the north pole.

    Then there are times – usually late in the evening when the sun heads towards the north (how odd) and the shadows get long and the colors of the terrain seem to become extra rich. The right tune, vista, and frame of mind, and you can get a gulp of a life-long memory. Given the nature of this place, you can actually have this min-epiphany almost every day. One would think that this would be even more common on Mars.

    While it is certainly fun to get carried away with the moment, it can become dangerous to do so for too long. You have to keep your eyes open. While the noise of the electrical generator and the activities of several dozen humans keep them at bay, there are polar bears on this island. They can sneak up on you and kill you. Other hazards are also a misstep away. While we have a doctor on hand, there is only so much that they can do – and help can be hours – and if weather is bad – days away. Simple things that a quick trip to the emergency room could treat could kill you if not attended to.

    As such, the most important thing you can do in an extreme environment as this is to balance one’s awe and astonishment at the magnificence of this place with the very real danger that lurks just underneath the surface. To me, such potential for danger only serves to heighten to special allure of this place – and etch imagery in my mind for a lifetime’s reviewing.

    If it is like this here, I can only imagine what it would be like on a place such as Mars.

    Index of 2003 Journal Entries

    Coming soon.

    Index of 2002 Journal Entries

    Keith Cowing’s Devon Island Journal: Summer 2002

    SpaceRef staff editor.