This is the third is a series of three posts from researchers’ expedition to northern Norway. Read others in the series here.
As fieldwork drew to a close last week off the northern tip of Norway, stormy seas flattened to a silvery smoothness and hungry fulmars swam about our fishing boat waiting for juicy leftovers. All we had to offer, though, were dead shells.
The team of scientists I accompanied had still not achieved one of its prize goals: the discovery of live, deep-water clams of a very special kind. The confidence we brought at the beginning of the week was wearing thin. Dead shells dredged from 600-foot depths proved our prey were tantalizingly close, but elusive. For days we had successfully collected living samples in 50-foot waters, but the Arctica islandica clam, the oldest living multicellular animal in the world, is at the extreme reach of its range where the North Atlantic meets the Arctic.
We needed live clams, and we needed them from the deepest possible waters at the edge of the continental shelf. Data gleaned from annual growth increments in shells at those depths reflect pure Gulf Stream waters (North Atlantic Current) where Atlantic current meets the Barents Sea, a critical intersection in the Arctic climate system. With this information the scientists on our team can reconstruct the triggers of ancient climate shifts and compare them to the present, as Arctic temperatures rise at twice the global average and sea ice dwindles to historic lows.
This is the second is a series of three posts from researchers’ expedition to northern Norway. Read others in the series here.
Fieldwork anywhere in the world is risky business, no less so here at the island of Ingøya off the north tip of Norway, where Arctic storms can blow up out of nowhere and prevent scientists from going to sea for days at a time.
After arriving Monday evening in a wash of golden sunlight that poured like honey across the green tundra, our team of scientists has watched weather steadily worsen. It was a non-issue on land, where we battled wind and cold with layers of wool and Gore-Tex, but another story at sea, where waves and huge swells can toss you overboard into frigid waters.
Despite three days of productive shoreline work, paleoclimatologist Al Wanamaker of Iowa State University has grown antsy waiting to sail far off shore. There sits the mother lode: Arctica islandica clams never before collected this far north nor this deep, at 71 degrees latitude and up to 600-foot depths. If Wanamaker scores, he’ll have a solid basis for tracking the climate impact of the northward-flowing Gulf Stream (North Atlantic Current), free of the influence of the freshwater runoff in coastal currents.
This is the first is a series of three posts from researchers’ expedition to northern Norway. Read others in the series here.
This past Sunday, as I was setting sail with a team of scientists aboard a coastal steamer bound from Tromsø, Norway, to a tiny island near the northernmost tip of the country, paleoclimatologist Al Wanamaker surprised me with a bit of news.
“I guess you heard about our Ming nightmare,” he had said as brisk Arctic winds chiselled white caps across the frigid seas before us. We had only met by email up till then and he wanted to broach this sensitive subject in person. At the center of the storm was a tiny clam: Arctica islandica, or the “Ming clam.” In 2007, Wanamaker and colleagues at Bangor University discovered it was the world’s longest living non-colonial animal.
After that discovery, “I was shaking in my boots when I walked out of the lab,” says Wanamaker. “Before I knew it, friends were calling me from all over the world.” But then things changed. “When others realized we had to kill individuals to date them, everything went haywire and headlines changed to ‘Scientist kills world’s oldest living animal.‘ It was a nightmare. There were even crazy stories about me clubbing and shucking them overboard. It took some coverage from National Geographic and other good journalists to set the record straight.”
Wanamaker and I were on the same page. We both wanted to focus on the science and get any distractions out of the way. The straight dope is that, if there’s one amazingly old Arctica islandica, there are many others happily living nearby. And where we’re headed, the coastal ocean is teeming with them.
Strewn across the dusty ground is the wreckage of a wetland forest that suddenly wilted and died 215 million years ago. Paul Olsen gestures at the broken lumps of white, red, and black quartz scattered about. “You see how it looks ropey?” he asks. He holds up a piece. “It looks like someone took little pieces of rope, snipped them up, and laid them down.”
Olsen believes that these scattered rocks mark the moment of a mass extinction that wiped out many species across North America. He would like to identify the calamity that triggered this extinction. But as I stand beside him in the midday sun, I’m unable to see the subtle clues that his trained eye perceives so easily. As I look at the rocks all about, I simply don’t see the ropey, cylindrical shapes that he’s talking about.
Olsen is a white-haired paleontologist with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York. He’s brought me to this mysterious spot in the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona — not the famous part of the park dotted with petrified logs two feet across, but instead a part that most tourists never glance at. The water-eroded badlands surrounding us are striped in pale, anemic layers of beige, pink, and white clay that doesn’t support more than a few clumps of grass. The ground is bare aside from thousands of quartz lumps lying around.
After staring at the rocks for 10 minutes, something in my brain finally clicks into place — like one of those brain teasers where you stare at a grid of dots without focusing, and suddenly out pops the shape of a spaceship or cartoon character. I realize in an instant that most of these rocks really are shaped like cylinders — some of them squished, some branched, some bent, some of them stuck together — but most of them, inescapably, cylinders. These rocks hold a great mystery, says Olsen.
Two weeks ago the HI-SEAS mission ended and the crew stepped beyond the dome into the morning sun. For the first time in four months, we were able to walk outside, unencumbered by spacesuit simulators. My crewmates talked about a newly recognized visual crispness they saw. Pebbles underfoot and distant mountains seemed to pop, they told me. I can’t say I saw this phenomenon. But I was acutely aware of the cool breeze against my skin.
We were greeted by reporters, held a brief question-and-answer session, and were treated to a buffet of fresh fruits and vegetables. There were breads, donuts, and egg casseroles too, but I couldn’t stop eating carrots and celery. Their crunch in my mouth was addictive. The next couple of days were spent in “debrief” mode, where we talked about the mission with Kim Binsted, one of the principal investigators on the project. Then the crew scattered for vacation and travel back home.
This is the sixteenth in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.
On Tuesday, the HI-SEAS crew will step outside our habitat unprotected by mock spacesuits for the first time in four months. The breeze will kiss our cheeks, fresh air will fill our noses and lungs, and if the weather holds, bright light from the sun will shine into our eyes. We’ll have arrived back on Earth.
But an interesting thing has happened in the build-up to our reentry. Paradoxically, some of our conversations have veered away from Earth, and even past Mars. We’ve discussed what it would take to build, operate and live on a starship, the kind of craft that steers toward neighbor suns, all the while sustaining generations of people for tens or hundreds of years.
This is the fifteenth in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.
There are less than two weeks left in the mission, and sleep is still at a premium. Many of us net less than seven hours a night, constantly trying to pay off sleep debt. I should know better than anyone: my research here investigates the quality and quantity of HI-SEAS crewmember sleep—or, evidently, the lack thereof.
Sleep is an intimate part of our lives, and the crew has been generous enough to donate data on theirs to help me answer some questions. Simply put, I wanted to know how a 45-minute dose of morning light affects crewmembers’ sleep the subsequent night. Will it help them fall asleep faster? Will it increase time spent in REM or deep sleep? Will they feel more rested overall?
This is the fourteenth in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.
UPDATE 3:03PM CDT | Early Monday morning Hawaii time, Tropical Storm Flossie tracked north and then west, just glancing the Big Island, on a path for Maui. At the habitat, all is calm, safe and sound.
Winds on the Red Planet can rage up to 100 miles per hour—hurricane speeds on Earth. But thanks to an atmosphere about 1 percent as dense as our planet’s, such gusts don’t pack a punch. And while the wind is often sandy, the grains are fine. It’s less sandblast and more smoke cloud.
The problem, however, is that these clouds can expand to cover areas the size of Earth’s continents and last weeks or months, blocking energy from the sun and potentially damaging joints on rovers or other equipment.
On Earth, our storms are smaller in scale and shorter in duration, but significantly more powerful. As I type this, one of these is bearing down on Hawaii, home to our four-month HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. The storm’s name is Flossie, and she is forecast to bring significant rain and wind speeds up to 45 miles per hour—which could spell havoc for our tiny outpost.
This is the thirteenth in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.
Last week, from the comfort of our isolated habitat on Mauna Loa, I remotely controlled a lunar rover onto a rock where it got stuck. Luckily the rover wasn’t actually 250,000 miles away. It was on a simulated moonscape outside Montreal where an engineer was able to dislodge it.
I’m not proud. But I can explain.
As a simulated Mars mission, HI-SEAS is a testbed for all sorts of space-related projects. The idea is that, as a crew on a mock Mars mission, we can try out systems and offer helpful feedback on prototypes. Testing spacesuit simulators and antimicrobial workout shirts, socks and pajamas are just a few of the projects underway. And over a couple days last week, we got to have the experience that future Mars colonists might have—using a remote-controlled rover to explore our planetary surroundings.
This is the twelfth in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.
It’s late March at Gale Crater, the landing site of the Mars Curiosity rover. And according to the Mars Weather site, temperatures haven’t made it above freezing for weeks.
It’s a cold spring for Curiosity after a surprisingly warm winter. But the engineers knew what they were getting into when they designed the rover. They knew its systems would need to endure temperatures colder than -150 degrees Fahrenheit, and that they would need to operate reliably without much time above a balmy 32 degrees.
The same basic principle applies to any future human habitats on Mars. But in addition to sporting systems that can withstand harsh, fluctuating temperatures, a habitat must also survive a journey to and a landing on the planet, keep its inhabitants protected from harmful radiation and a toxic atmosphere (or lack thereof), and maintain comfortable indoor temperatures.
Speaking from experience in a simulated habitat I can tell you: Shirtsleeve temperatures are preferred.