Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Signing off for 2008

Today's blog brought to you by: Darlene Lim Photo: Darlene sectioning microbialite at Pavilion Lake Photo credit: Bill Taylor

A Summary of Phase II of our 2008 field season – great field science, and tired so-longs for now

With the departure of the Deepworkers from Pavilion Lake on July 3rd, came the arrival of a new crop of researchers to move the project into the second phase of field operations. From July 4-11th, the PLRP was engaged in science diving activities in Pavilion and Kelly lakes. These dives were primarily to support the PLRP geobiological investigations. During these dives, water, microbialite, sediment, and microbial mat samples were collected for a variety of analyses (geochemical, microscopic, mineralogical, molecular, organic, thin section and taxonomic). Some ground truthing of the Deepworker waypoints of interest was conducted, however given the long list of science items we had to check off, we decided to leave much of the ground truthing to another expedition next year. A subgroup of the geobiology team spent 3 days investigating ponds on the Cariboo plateau, which are viewed as geochemical book ends to our understanding of carbonate precipitating environments. Greg Druschel from the University of Vermont conducted micro-electrode analyses to help with our understanding of the sediment redox chemistry in these ponds and Pavilion Lake. As well, Alfonso Davila from NASA Ames used a portable Raman spectrometer to investigate organic signatures in the microbialites and the mats from the various lakes and ponds.

Bekah Shepard spent hours diving in 10-20 feet of water investigating the unusual mat morphologies in the shallow regions of Pavilion Lake. While scouring the lake for interesting slime, as she puts it, Bekah discovered depressions in the shallows that had the distinct odor of hydrogen sulfide (that horrid rotten egg smell), indicative of the presence of sulfate-reducing bacteria. This led to water samples and pH data being collected from these points of interest. Bekah and Harry Bohm also discovered a region of incoming groundwater in Pavilion Lake. PLRP members have been on the hunt for a recognizable input point for groundwater for years, however given the low, diffuse flow throughout most of the lake, this find has eluded us – until now. The spring was located in the shallows, and was visually and thermally apparent to divers. This will most certainly be a region we will return to in the future to sample the groundwater for limnological and isotopic analyses. With the discovery of this spring, we hope to better understand how to locate others in the lake, and to determine whether or not the groundwater is an important contributor to the development of microbialites in Pavilion Lake.

The UBC-GAVIA team conducted mapping work at Pavilion and Kelly lakes, and added to their growing data base of sonar and photographic images from these two sites. Their research, along with that of Geoff Mullins from Simon Fraser University, has been the backbone of our understanding of Pavilion Lake’s physical characteristics. The SONAR maps produced by Geoff provided high-resolution remote sensing data that was used to plan Deepworker dives throughout Pavilion Lake. Water samples and pH profiles were also collected from a series of other regional lakes and ponds as part of the PLRP’s long-term limnological monitoring program in the area.

Throughout all of these science activities, the PLRP had the privilege of hosting Bill Taylor, a high school physics teacher from California, who was embedded with the team for the duration of Phase II. His enthusiasm, humor, and energy were infectious, and I know that his students will benefit greatly from all that he learnt while in the field with us.
We had an incredible team that made the 2008 field season possible. All supported each other through long, hot days, and late, tired nights. It was amazing to watch in action, and such a privilege to be a part of. Thank you again to the Ts’kw’aylaxw First Nations people, Pavilion Lake Community, B.C. Parks Service, and in particular to Mickey and Linda Macri, and Ron and Lorna Cook, for the incredible support and encouragement. As well, thank you to the Canadian Space Agency CARN program, NASA ASTEP and Spaceward Bound programs, Nuytco Research, McMaster University and the National Geographic Society for funding our PLRP endeavors over the years.
This is our final report for the 2008 field season. Thank you to everyone who has been following our adventures – stay tuned for more to come in 2009.
July 14, 2008

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Emily's PLRP visit

Brought to you by Emily dela Cruz, Bill Taylor's wife and Network Administrator at City Hall in San Francisco.

I was very excited that I could come with Bill to Pavilion Lake. I saw the link to the place and I though of it as so romantic. But, then he mentioned that there are lots of scientists doing research on this lake so I knew it will be work for him. I didn’t go in depth in my reading on what really it is all about. I didn't know how it would work out for me.

Bill always came home from his days at NASA-Ames talking with enthusiasm about some of the exciting events at NASA Ames, especially about the Phoenix lander and the recent discoveries on Mars. He talks a lot about the dedication of the scientists he have encountered and it is a privilege for him to work with Alfonso, who is so passionate doing his work.

The first morning I came to the meeting, I noticed how organized the running of the research project is and I observed how serious everyone is on their given assignment. People here appreciate what others are doing. People are also more conscious of the time factor to get results within a set time frame . I noticed the commitment of all concerned to generate and disseminate knowledge that would contribute to a fuller understanding of everyone’s project. I noticed the long-standing trust and friendship with those who have been with the project and those who are just getting in. I didn’t feel like an outsider, I just amazed at how everyone sets up labs and how each one collaborates with each other.

The place is so beautiful and the view of the lake and the surrounding mountains is so awesome.

Bill Taylor - California teacher visits Lake Pavilion

Brought to you by Bill Taylor, California High School Physics teacher. Bill is working this summer with Alfonso Davila/NASA Ames as part of the STAR, a teacher training program.

Pictured Emily dela Cruz, Bill Taylor and Alfonso Davila.

Long trip. The camp was not ready for us when we arrived at 12 midnight. Donnie really did extra duty to come pick us up, finding out that we were waiting there at 11:30pm.
A somewhat uncomfortable night’s sleep. Sheets were not clean.
First Day
Uncertainty who was who, what plates and utensils to use for eating. Intros at AM meeting. Emily uncomfortable with that.
Fortunately Darlene asked us what we needed for comfort and we got a much better room. Emily cleaned half the day. Emily and I are greatly relieved!
Recover from trip – very sleepy until after long nap. Then energetic, studied the AP-physics I teach next year
Evening meeting. I hope I don’t get assigned to anything because I still need to study physics. Apparently there is an education person I am supposed to speak with.
Second Day
Alfonso and I sat under the canopy in a beautiful spot and tried to get the Raman to be useful. I don’t think we really understand it.
The divers brought up a “microbialite” or “chimney” from the lake for study! Looks really cool (pic). Some facts (?) I got from Darlene as they were carving it up:
• These were very common in Earth’s early history, very uncommon now.
• Don’t know what creates them – that’s the whole point of the research they’re doing
• What happened in the history of the lake that allowed these to exist here (and not in most nearby lakes)? There is a nearby lake that has some of these but they look different.
• There is biology on the surface – cyanobacteria (green) and some “pods” of another color – what are these pods and why are they there? Are they part of why these structures are created?
• The microbialites could be created biologically, perhaps from the poop of the cyanobacteria on the surface or of the pods
• If we can find out what are the conditions under which they are created, they might turn out to be a good analog for Mars.
Darlene cut the microbialite cross-section with a regular hand saw! They bagged several portions, some for archiving for use at a later date and some for various science members to study now.
• Cross section cut shows layers of colors – maybe iron oxides (rust color)
• Part of it brakes off showing spherical shells [pic] – why?
• Some of them are “oxic” meaning that photosynthesis is happening - cyanobacteria
• Some are anoxic – not sure that this means exactly
• They do know that there is some cell-signaling in the biology. I think this means that the bacteria cells “talk” to each other by unknown mechanisms and this is how they make “slime”.
• Question: what does “microbialite” mean?
• Some scientists think that it will take 10 years to determine the answers
• If they are not created by biology, they might be created by chemical action of the various constituents in the water.
• It’s a ground-water fed lake, so they want to look at the different waters coming in (and leaving?) the lake, and also at various layers in the lake
So I can see now that, as on the Desert Trip (Spaceward Bound Mojave 08), there are various scientists from various places (all over the country) looking at these things using their own expertise and interests. The collaboration is really important because no one of them knows everything. They obviously know that collaboration is important because they like to talk with one another and share the science, and they also are extremely willing to share resources, equipment, time etc. with one another – pretty cool!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Another martian twist at the PLRP

Alfonso Davila

It's about to get really nasty. Tomorrow some of us are heading to the Basque Lakes, a group of lakes characterized by a high concentration of magnesium-sulfate salts, which at this time of the year precipitate here and there and everywhere, forming small brine pools. Bacteria feed on these sulfate salts, leaving behind a collection of sulfide minerals and gases. Getting your nose too close to these pools will engrave long-lasting, stinky memories in your brain. Watch your step, or they may leave long-lasting stains on your boots and trousers too. Nothing in these black and white smelly ponds will be of interest to your eyes, unless your interests lie in finding out if life was ever present on Mars.
Magnesium sulfate salts, mainly epsomite (MgSO4-7H2O) and its dehydrated twin kieserite (MgSO4), are the most common evaporitic minerals identified on Mars so far. They have been found in the vast flat lands of Meridiani Planum and in the steep walls of Valles Marineris. These minerals are a window into a period of the history of Mars when liquid water was stable and abundant on the surface. In the Basque Lakes, magnesium sulfate salts are breakfast for many microorganisms, which in turn are lunch for others and so on down the menu. To many of you the resulting ecosystem may not be the prettiest expression of mother nature's masterpiece, but perhaps the simplicity of a mathematical equation will change your mind:

Mg-sulfate + H2O + Life on Earth = Mg-sulfate + H2O + X on Mars

Figure out X and you may find beauty. This is one of the many equations that justify Mars analogue research. It is based on the fact that there is many places on Earth that resemble Mars today or sometime in the past. Pavilion Lake may be an example. The Basque Lakes may be another. Studying these analogue environments brings us a step closer to understanding Mars, its evolution and its potential for life. It helps us guiding and designing the next robots that will be sent to Mars, and are the perfect grounds for testing the instruments that they will carry, or the life support systems that humans will use themselves one day. This year we brought a portable version of one of these instruments: a Raman Spectrometer. We use the Raman to identify special compounds within bulk samples that are of interest for one reason or another. Organic compounds are one example, sulfate salts are another. The working principle of a Raman Spectrometer is the same as bouncing a ball against something. Bounce it against a concrete wall and it will come right back at you. Bounce it against a pillow and it will come back much more slowly (or it won't come back at all!). After bouncing the ball many times against many different things, you may be able to recognize the type of material you are hitting just by seeing how fast or slow the ball is coming back to you. A Raman does not throw balls but instead it shines a laser into the sample. After interacting with the sample the laser comes back with a different wavelength (wavelength shift), the equivalent to the speed of our ball. Organic compounds and sulfate salts induce characteristic shifts on the laser, which can be easily identified on the screen of the computer attached to the Raman. This way we hope to be able to easily identify any sulfate salts and organic compounds in the lakes. I can almost smell them...

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Day at nearby Kelly Lake

Brought to you by Bob Laval.

Weston Pike, Bernard Laval and Alex Forrester launching Gavia into Kelly Lake.

After developing the initial Pavilion Lake Research Project web site near the offset of the project, I have finally been able step out of virtual reality and come on site to meet the team and get a feel for the reality of the project.

I was struck by the warmth of the welcome and the immediate inclusion into project activities. It is inspiring to rub elbows and share food with visionaries, committed scientists, top experts in the field of diving, amazing and gifted support staff with the common denominator of being people who care for people. I have met people who not only love what they do but are a testimony to how education and thorough training can position a person in life to explore possibilities of why things are as they are and how it can prepare us for such things as a flight to the moon or mars.

I spent my first day here mainly plying my trade updating the existing site and exploring possibilities to meet the needs of this evolving and expanding project and best serve its web audience.

Today I was an assistant to a team that went to explore Kelly Lake with the autonomous underwater vehicle, or submarine, used to map and perform a series of tests and scans of the underwater environment. I also travelled the short distance to Pear Lake to assist in the water tests. The team was made up of Dr. Bernard Laval, Alex Forrester, and Weston Pike. I was impressed by the thoroughness of the preparation, the meticulous approach to all operations, the concern for safety and of the ever present sense of stewardship of the environment. It was fun and most definitely expanded my horizons.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute my little bit to this amazing project.

Science week starts, microbialites get probed...

Greg Drushcel and Ben Cowie lower the microelectrode to the microbialite field

by Greg Druschel
Department of Geology
University of Vermont

Sediment porewater redox chemistry in lakes reflects the activity of microorganisms that utilize oxygen, nitrate, manganese, iron, and sulfate, giving deeper sediment porewater a different chemical signature compared to the water column. Of particular note for our research, sediment porewater organisms include sulfate reducers that generate hydrogen sulfide as a product of their metabolism. At Pavilion Lake, the location of microbialites is highly heterogeneous and they have an interesting morphology, including vent-like structures that are often associated with flow in other systems. The ‘vent’ structures observed with the microbialites have not thus far been noted to be associated with any detectable flow, but it has been hypothesized that diffuse flow may be an important part of these structures. Allyson Brady and Greg Slater have found evidence in the microbialites themselves for sulfate reducing bacteria, further suggesting that these organisms may be somehow linked to microbialite formation and morphology. We are investigating if this diffuse flow may cause upwelling of porewaters, or mixing of groundwaters with deeper porewaters, that may contain low concentrations of hydrogen sulfide or other reduced forms of manganese or iron associated with sediment porewater microbes. Hydrogen sulfide reactions may additionally change the pH of the water and potentially cause changes in carbonate precipitation, and some microbialites have been observed to include bands of different colors often associated with iron and manganese precipitates which can also affect water chemistry and associated carbonate precipitation or dissolution. We are using voltammetric microelectrodes that can measure oxygen and hydrogen sulfide (in addition to iron, manganese, and many other sulfur forms) to investigate if any of these reduced chemical forms may be present in and around the vent structures.

Yesterday, Greg Slater and Dale Andersen carried a sampling pole with a voltammetric microelectrode down to a field of microbialites at 70 feet deep in the 3 Poles region of Pavilion Lake. The electrode was attached to a potentiostat and computer on a pontoon boat where I was constantly monitoring the computer screen for changes in redox chemistry at the tip of the microelectrode. Dale and Greg placed the sampling pole in the sediment and placed the voltammetric microelectrode (a little smaller than the size of a small pencil) inside 5 different microbialite vent structures at different levels and outside the microbialites to see if there were any changes in redox chemistry associated with diffuse flow through the microbialite structures. The redox chemistry within these 5 vents was no different than the redox chemistry outside the vents, which was fully oxygenated. Our hypothesis that the occurrence and morphology of the microbialites is affected by a link with sediment porewater chemistry was not supported by measurements at these sites, but we shall keep thinking, working, and looking to unlock the secrets of these fascinating formations!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Wednesday: Deepworkers Head Home

Today's blog brought to you by:
Geobiolobist, Limnologist

Today the Deepworker submersible operations have come to an end. We have had 10 successful days of using these subs to map and sample the deepest regions of Pavilion Lake. We found that the Deepworkers were the ideal tool to facilitate deep and long range scientific mapping – they are maneuverable, efficient and safe. Deepworkers gave us an ease of movement and removed the need to decompress or to watch one’s bottom time as you would if we were SCUBA diving. This afforded the scientists the ability to fully immerse themselves in their environment during the submersible dives that lasted 3 hours and covered depths of up to 200 feet. The scientist and astronaut pilots were able to quickly synthesize their impressions of the lake and to focus on gathering thoughtful observations rather than worrying about technical issues related to such lengthy and deep dives.

As the Deepworker activities rolled along, each pilot also saw an exponential increase in their piloting capabilities. During training we were told that it is easy to pilot a Deepworker, and what is harder to do is to know how to pilot the subs well. By the second dive or so each pilot was remarking on the significant increase in their handling capabilities, which allowed them to better focus on the environment around them. This outcome alone validated the use of Deepworkers to achieve our science goals.

The flight planning and science and operational success metrics that we designed in coordination with Dr. Michael Gernhardt from the NASA JSC Astronaut office were highly successful and useful. This demonstrated the incredible utility of having scientists and astronauts explore scientifically relevant analog environments as a tool for preparing for the human exploration of the Moon and Mars. Furthermore, it was extremely exciting for each of the pilots to be able to sit in the Deepworkers and look at the lake in a holistic manner. Each evening we had All-Hands science meetings where the pilots shared their observations with the science, operations and technical team. During these meetings it was very apparent that we had made significant inroads to better understanding the variability and distribution of microbialites in Pavilion Lake as a result of having our previous exploration challenges mitigated by the use of Deepworker submersibles. These meetings were an important and highly productive part of our day as they allowed us time to engage in stimulating scientific banter and to update our dive plans based on the science priorities we identified. As well, the meetings ensured that the data was disseminated to the entire team so that as best as possible, the Deepworker experience was not limited to the six lucky pilots. This deepened the vested interest that each PLRP member had in the Deepworker activities as our science priorities were based on group consensus, which ultimately led to dive plans for the following day.

With the departure of the Deepworker submersibles today, I am relieved and melancholy. Relieved because we have had a safe and productive 10 days, and we met all of our science and exploration objectives. Melancholy because for now our time in the subs has drawn to a close. On this final point, I can write without hesitation that I will miss piloting the subs, but most of all I will miss the intellectual and emotional camaraderie that this endeavor catalyzed in the group. Over 10 short or long days (depending on who you talk to) we created a family made up of folks from all walks of life. Astronauts, scientists, engineers, technicians, boat captains, safety officers and one incredible cook. All were passionate about what we have learnt through our Deepworker deployment, and all are looking forward to continuing, growing and evolving this program into the future. As I mentioned in one of my earlier writings, it does take a community and we have created one that I know will move onwards and upwards for years to come. It is such a privilege for me to be a part of this voyage. Thank you to all of the lovely humans who comprise the PLRP community.

July 3, 2008