I’m so excited to be officially joining the PLRP team this year as part of the science team. I got excited about astrobiology in graduate school and after my PhD, was a NASA Astrobiology Institute postdoctoral fellow. When I became a professor, I kept looking for ways to stay involved in NASA and astrobiology science. I collaborate with the NASA Astrobiology Institute at Penn State University and now am part of the PLRP team!
I typically do deep sea research, so the PLRP approach of using manned submarines is not too unusual to me. What is unusual is that we’re taking an analog mission approach to the science and exploration – complete with a mobile mission command center. I’ve been really impressed with the amount of infrastructure that the team has had to create in order to do their work, including setting up wifi in remote places and running video feeds across miles. Typically my research done on a ship has communications already on it – we just hop on and do science. Coming to a remote (and beautiful!) site in British Columbia certainly presents challenges.
Today I got my full immersion into PLRP science and headed up the science backroom team for the third dive in Kelly Lake. One disadvantage of a single manned sub is that only one person is seeing and observing things in real time. Maybe they can take a video, but the rest of us might wait hours to see it. That means decisions are slowed and science might be impeded. So this year the team designed a way to have a sub tethered to a cable, sending video feeds to the surface – and then the coms team has been able to shoot video back to the mobile mission command center. What this means is that many of us scientists can sit in comfort and see and hear what the pilot of the sub is observing. That way we can confer on what we are seeing immediately, add extra sets of eyes to a busy pilot and give advice or opinions on what is happening. Really what we did was sit back and go “Cool!” when a lovely microbialite would pop up on the screen.
We additionally got a true mission-feel when we started doing delayed communications. If an astronaut is off of the Earth, it takes a while to talk to them! So even though our sub pilot was only a few kilometers away, we gave ourselves a delay to see how things would go. Not surprisingly, it did seem easier – doesn’t your job go better when your “boss” stops interrupting you? But we’ll see how well it works when we actually want samples. Maybe 10 brains are better than one – maybe not! It’s part of this week’s experiments. My final experiments won’t be done for a while. We are collecting samples from Pavilion and Kelly Lakes to continue to describe the microbial communities that are in the microbialites. My group is specifically interested in the phototrophic (light-harvesting) communities, who we expect are driving the distinct shapes we see in these structures. Our work is in progress, so now updates yet – but watch for later updates as we start to unravel the mysteries of these beautiful and mysterious microbialites!
Written By: Jennifer Biddle
We’re up and almost running. A 16 km drive down the Kelly Lake Road with crane, barge, DeepWorker submersibles and Nuytco crew in tow – the barge is assembled and ready to go! The Nuytco and PLRP crew worked hard piecing together the barge, which will serve as a platform to launch the DeepWorkers. Subs due to launch around noon tomorrow. Check the barge assemble process in the photos below.
Mars life crew went back to Pavilion Lake to confirm preliminary data from last season. The divers sampled surface water in the central basin of the lake, and the 3 poles transect at 85 feet; both water and microbialites. These samples will be examined for total community analysis, metabolic potential and metabolic function. Check out the sample collection photos below. The Sea Monkey’s are a favorite.
The PLRP 2010 field season has come to a close and I am both saddened by the fact that operations are finished for another year but excited by the prospect of adding the data we’ve collected this year to our growing body of knowledge about this unique lake. I am in awe of the work that has been done by this amazing team and of how much we’ve grown, while maintaining the sense of adventure and camaraderie that to me, helps to define the PLRP.
We’ve taken great strides towards answering many of our research questions and in the process, with every answer we have come up with many more questions that will keep the PLRP team occupied for quite some time. Fortunately, our family continues to grow and every year we welcome new individuals who bring a unique perspective and desire to tease out the mysteries Pavilion has to offer. We have also been blessed this year by the addition of two little members to the PLRP family, Darlene Lim’s daughter Amelia and Greg Slater’s son Joseph. We look forward to the day when they are exploring the lake alongside us.
The PLRP provides a wealth of research opportunities, and not just those focused on understanding the processes leading to the formation of the structures at Pavilion Lake but also to understanding fundamental biological, chemical and physical processes. The research contributions from our participating scientists and graduate students have resulted in a number of recent publications and are essential to increasing our understanding of Earth and astrobiological systems. We’re very proud of the role that the PLRP has played in developing operational technologies and protocols that not only help us meet our science objectives but provide important input into future space science missions.
With the addition of our two newest scientist pilots, astronauts Chris Hadfield and Stan Love, we had 34 DeepWorker missions over 10 days of operations. This year we were aided greatly in our pre-season flight planning by the wonderful team from NASA Ames led by Matt Deans and David Lees who developed an amazing flight planning tool that enabled us to search images and flight paths from previous years while building flight plans in Google Earth. Flights this year were planned to collect images of the remaining unexplored regions of the lake, to record detailed images of areas of interest identified from 2008 and 2009 data and to use the submersibles in combination with other analytical tools such as a conductivity, temperature and depth (CTD) instrument and our autonomous underwater vehicle(s) (AUV). Our ability to review post-flight video data in the field, an effort pioneered in 2009, added greatly to our productivity as this information was used immediately by the science backroom team to modify existing flight plans to best optimize our data collection. As part of the daily flight debriefs, we have also continued to apply metrics associated with scientific productivity to understand factors that influence scientific exploration. New this year to the DeepWorker flight repertoire were long ~ 5 hour flights and two night flights to investigate the grazing activity that we suspect may occur in the lake. To add to the innovations this year, Nick Wilkinson designed a fantastic, interactive program for use in classifying the microbialite images. This new tool will allow us to efficiently organize and process our field data over the coming months. Stay tuned for updates.
In case our DeepWorker operations didn’t keep us busy enough, we had a number of other important activities included in the field schedule this year. The UBC and University of Delaware AUV teams produced fantastic images of the lake bottom that were often used to compliment the DeepWorker flights and give us a better picture of where interesting structures and features are in the lake. Numerous SCUBA dives were performed by our intrepid team of divers to collect water and microbialite samples that were shared between various research groups in an effort to combine and compliment analytical findings. These samples will be characterized from a virology, microbial lipid, isotopic and genetic point of view to provide more information about the role of biology in the formation of the microbialites and what biosignatures may be left behind. Water samples were collected from nearby lakes including Crown, Turquoise, Pear and Kelly Lake to continue to help us put Pavilion Lake in context. Kelly Lake, which also hosts microbialites and has been an area of interest to the PLRP team for many years, was also the focus of significant AUV activities this year. Microbial mats were once again collected from the Cariboo Plateau lakes and giant pancakes were eaten by all (well, almost all). As a new participatory activity this year, our visiting teacherswere given the task of selecting a SCUBA dive based on their understanding of the research questions of interest (on their first day no less!). I’m happy to report that they eagerly interviewed members of the team before presenting their selected dive and rationale to the group for inclusion in the next day’s diving schedule. Community Day was another great success this year with the team happy to show off our work and answer questions from the many visitors we had to the site. Busy indeed!
We plan on continuing our updates throughout the year as we analyze samples and work through the amazing amount of data that were collected. Thanks to all who have read about our activities and through this process, have joined in our adventure. See you next year!
In the name of science we have invaded cottage country. The quiet cabins along Pavilion Lake have every bed filled, and there’s a tractor-trailer in the parking lot with NASA painted on it. Instead of fishing boats we have floating science platforms, torpedo-shaped robots, and 1-person submarines.
While digging into the world’s geological history we’re making an unusual racket in a peaceful place, and this is what I hear:
- My roommate’s alarm clock is set to Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees. It seems a brutal sentiment at 06:45.
- My bunkbed mattress creaks so loudly that I only roll over when I really have to.
- Breakfast is a hubbub of voices, 50 scientists and researchers from all over, discussing Cheerio flavours and side-scanning sonar.
- Many small fans cooling too many laptops creates a steady low hum in every room.
- The technician’s voice is calm and steady as he reads me the submarine pre-launch checklist.
- The thrusters on my submarine whir and whine, like a sputtering dentist’s drill.
- Radio voices are too loud and urgent to be natural at the bottom of the lake. My own voice sounds alien down there.
The loons calling on the lake are haunting and perfect, and will reclaim the mountain silence as soon as we are gone.
Colonel, Astronaut, submarine pilot
Magical! Driving a sub through the “herms” of Pavilion Lake is absolutely magical! Imagine this: a snow of particulates streaks around the dome. A yellow light permeates the water column as it filters through the planktonic cloud and bounces through the Chara. Microbialites rise up from the bottom like castles shrouded in a mist of microalgae. The natural world is like poetry to an observational scientist, and a dive in the herms is high art. Of course, to someone who studies the shapes and forms of microbialites (like I do), a dive in the herms is also like candy! Microbialites cover up to 90 percent of the lake bottom, and exhibit a variety of different shapes in a space of only a few meters. For a microbialite scientist – Yum!
Today I was lucky enough to pilot such a dive to the herms. The herms are an area near the center of Pavilion Lake. Their name is a bit of a misnomer – in fact, it is more of a nickname that stuck! Herms is short for bioherms, which refers to a build up of biological organisms, usually into a mound that rises above the surrounding sea or lake floor. Our Pavilion herms are mounds, but they are probably just sediment mounds that are covered in lots of microbialites, rather than being mounds build up exclusively by microbialites. Nevertheless, they remain a favorite area of the PLRP scientific team, because of the small area, dense ecology, and interesting geochemical and limnological environment.
My mission was to completely circumnavigate two of the herms that we had not mapped in previous years. Navigating the subs through an area of such dense mounds and interesting features has been challenging in the past. The topography can make communication between the surface and subs problematic, and our maps have not always been as accurate as they are now. However, as our research has continued, our knowledge of the area has improved, our communications infrastructure has grown by leaps and bounds, and I daresay, some of us are even getting better at flying these subs! I am proud to say that the circumnavigation went smoothly and we were able to fill in some missing areas in our maps of the herms!
Improving our maps also means raising more questions; such is the nature of exploration, and this dive was no exception. Although many of the morphological trends that I observed were similar to those I have noticed before (adding strength to some of our hypotheses), new subtleties leapt into view. Why, for example, do many of the microbialites along the bottom of the mounds look roughed-up, slightly broken, whitish, and all together kind of crummy? Does it have to do with fluctuating sediment levels at the bases of the mounds? Perhaps. That leads me to questions of how precisely sediment is transported around the mounds: what is the source of the sediment? How often do large sediment flows come down from the surrounding walls? Are the microbialites buried and exposed regularly or does it happen on a timescale of decades or centuries!? For each answer there are new questions, and for each new question there are a handful of associated questions.
The abundance of new questions is thrilling, and is what keeps bringing us back here. I often find myself chatting with people who are surprised that we haven’t uncovered all of the details of microbialite formation, development, and growth – after all, we have been studying Pavilion Lake for a number of years. Yet that is the appeal of studying microbialites! Microbialite mounds are subject to nearly countless variables – biological, chemical, and physical processes that change through time. Untangling each of those influences is a process – a process that is being helped along by the phenomenal amount of data that we are collecting with the DeepWorker subs, with the GAVIA AUVs, and with our team of SCUBA divers. So, do we understand everything about microbialite formation yet? Nope. Not by far. But with dives like my magical one through the herms, we are getting ever closer! The microbialites of Pavilion Lake have a story to tell, and through our exploration we are listening to the telling.
Bekah Shepard explores the highway side of the North Basin of Pavilion Lake. Click the wrench icon in the Google Earth plugin window to slow down the animation speed.
Download the KMZ file for your Google Earth software here: 20100629C
Hello from Pavilion Lake and happy Canada Day!! My name is Mary Beth and I am one of the more junior members of the PLRP team. I am half way through my undergrad at Cornell University in New York and am an intern at NASA Ames Research Center in California.
I just arrived back to land a half hour ago after being out on the lake for over 6 hours! And while it was a lot of fun to be outside, I had to pull out my jacket that I only use during the winter in New York. It has been a very busy day as the PLRP team conducts a full suite of submersible, autonomous underwater vehicle, and SCUBA dive operations.
I had two major jobs today. The first was keeping a log of all of the science notes that sub pilots called up to the surface while following the sub in a boat that is equipped with walkie-talkies capable of communicating with the pilot while he was underwater. Astronaut Mike Gernhardt was piloting one of the subs today, conducting an extended 5 hour dive around the south basin. It was exciting to listen to all of Mike’s observations and discoveries in real time!
My second job today was taking rock samples for my own summer research project. I am investigating the role of rocks in the formation and morphology of microbialites. We think that microorganisms may prefer to start forming microbialites on solid surface substrates, like rocks, and our team has observed many microbialites throughout the lake that have formed on top of both really big and small rocks. Pilot Margarita imaged rock slides of interests in the DeepWorker subs on Monday, and after reviewing the data with the science team, we decided to revisit a few of these slides with divers to collect rocks to study. So, today I had pro divers Mike D. and Gary take a few rock samples every 10 ft. from a rock slide in the central basin that went from about 80 feet below the surface all the way up to the shore.
After collecting these samples, I will analyze them in our outdoor wet lab, recording basic physical observations and measurements, and looking for trends in the data that will help us understand how factors like size of the rock and depth may affect microbialite growth. Hopefully my observations will help elucidate factors that control microbialite growth on rocks and even give us more clues to how microbialites are first formed.