Why go to Antarctica?

Growing up, there were many warm summer nights when I laid in the grass and looked at the stars in the night sky. On particularly clear nights, it seemed impossible to count all the stars.  It also seemed improbable that there were so many stars yet no other life forms in the universe. Fast forward a few decades and it seems only natural now be a scientist who now studies the extreme limits of life because it may shape our understanding of how life could form elsewhere in the universe.

Space exploration has provided us with a window into where there may be life off of Earth.  It may be within a frozen ocean on an icy moon, or within the seemingly inhospitable rock on Mars.  While we can envision and build expeditions to the depths of outer space to study these environments, these missions can take decades from conception to reality. A quicker and more cost effective way to study if there may be life on another planet is to study life in some of the most extreme environments on Earth.  Such extreme conditions on Earth, often called “analog environments”, can be the extreme cold or the lack of sunlight to power photosynthesis. Thus, the extreme environment of Antarctica provides a natural laboratory for studying how life may survive in these seemingly inhospitable conditions.  But what forms of life are we looking for?  Will there be other beings like humans or animals?  The space exploration work so far suggests that if there is life beyond Earth, it is likely to be small simple organisms like microbes.

This brings us to Antarctica and the Princess Elisabeth Station.  In January 2017, I will be leading an expedition to Antarctica to study life in this extreme environment.  The REMACA project, whose name I will explain in an upcoming post, will survey how microbes live in the region surrounding the Princess Elisabeth Station. We will be looking for life in rocks, ice covered lakes, and even in the snow.  After collecting these specimens in the field, we will be taking the samples back to the lab where we will analyze the samples to figure out who is living there and how active the microbes are. While this type of work has been conducted in other regions of Antarctica, this will be some of the first work of its kind at the Princess Elisabeth station.  Hopefully by exploring the cold barren region surrounding the station will lead to some exciting discoveries, and the reward of such discoveries is what makes the work of a scientist so fulfilling.

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