Pavilion Lake Noises

Posted on July 7th, 2010 by Chris Hadfield

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.

Chris Hadfield

Colonel, Astronaut, submarine pilot

Exploring the Herms: Bekah Shepard

Posted on July 6th, 2010 by Bekah Shepard

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!

View from the pilot's seat.

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!

Exploring the herms at 40 feet.

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.

Returning to the surface to see a smiling Susan Winnitoy, guiding me back to the barge.

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

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The journey of a thousand miles (or in our case, many thousands of miles)

Posted on July 6th, 2010 by Stephanie Nebel

Hello World!  Greetings from the beautiful shore of Pavilion Lake, BC, where the mountains are high, the lake is clear, and the science is plentiful!

Sunset on our first evening at Pavilion Lake.

I write this sitting in what is probably the most utilized building in camp surrounded by nectarines, apples, and Frankenstein Cookies* (which, deliciously, have just come from the oven).  We pile into this building, called Brock’s House, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day.  By day, the room is filled with computers and hard drives and people busily processing data (sometimes while simultaneously watching World Cup Soccer/Football and Tour de France cycling).  Every night, we come together as a group for our nightly science meetings.  We share ideas, ask questions, get weather updates, summarize our daily activities, are introduced to the newest members of Team Pavilion, and say goodbye to those departing.

At our largest, the team will consist of more than 70 people from all corners of the world.  The larger team consists of smaller groups, each with their own objectives that ultimately contribute to PLRP. As I type this, the scuba divers are diving to collect samples and document microbialite growth, while the deep worker subs are exploring the central basin of Pavilion Lake. While a single person pilots the sub, a navigator boat floats above the sub to support the deepwater operations. Meanwhile, at the Hab (Mobile Mission Command Center), located just up the road from Brock’s House where I currently sit, people are processing data. Our camp cooks, Jen and Dana, are busily preparing lunch for 61 hungry people (which is no small task). Ashley has headed to town and will be coming back shortly with a truck filled with boxes of food.  The UBC (University of British Columbia) AUV team was out running missions before breakfast and are presently on Pavilion Lake to deploy some instruments, and the UD (University of Delaware) AUV team is busily planning missions for the afternoon.  I’m part of the UD team, along with Art Trembanis and Jon Gutsche. We work closely with the AUV team from UBC and have been given the team name “Gaviators”.

The UBC AUV team prepares for night ops.

It’s hard to believe that it’s Saturday, and that we now have six days of work behind us.  We arrived on Sunday from Philadelphia, PA via Minneapolis, MN (where we spent a short night due to a late night canceled flight), Denver, CO and finally Vancouver, BC.  The drive from Vancouver to Pavilion Lake was gorgeous, and the snow peaked mountains were unlike anything we left behind in Delaware.

Upon our arrival on site, Art, our advisor who participated in the project last year, began showing us around.  We visited the Hab and Brock’s House, where dinner was waiting for us, and then we wandered down a gravel road and found the lakeside cabins that would be our homes for next two weeks.  Along the way, we met many members of Team Pavilion – some who have spent years participating in the project and others, like myself, who were brand new to it.

We all approach the project from diverse backgrounds.  We are teachers, biologists, geologists, dieticians, engineers, scuba divers, chemists, artists, astronauts, physicists, astronomers, zoologists, and ecologists. The unique perspective that each individual brings to the group is fascinating – how an artist views sonar data or how a teacher will take the work done here at Pavilion and integrate it into their classroom. To view your work through a different lens is both interesting and important. It stimulates questions and conversations that further drive the work in new directions.

In the days since our arrival, we have had great success mapping Pavilion with our AUV named “Dora”.  What is an AUV, you might ask??  AUV is short for Autonomous Underwater Vehicle – basically an underwater robot that is equipped with an array of instruments.  The AUV maneuvers around Pavilion Lake, traveling along “lines” that we plan in a computer before the mission start.  This mission plan is then sent to the AUV and she swims off to collect data while we await on shore for her return.  Mission length is controlled by the battery life of the AUV, and typically ranges from 1.5 to 4 hours.

An underwater landslide feature identified with side-scan sonar in Pavilion Lake

The UD AUV, a Gavia class vehicle, has two sonar systems.  Both sonar systems emit sound pulses that travel through the water and then bounce back towards the vehicle when they hit the lake bottom.  One, called side-scan sonar, characterizes the type of sediment at the lakebed.  The second, interferometric sonar, measures the bathymetry of the lakebed.  Using these two instruments, we will produce a high resolution “image” of the bottom of Pavilion Lake.  We are able to identify trees, microbalite structures, and underwater landslides in these records.  Additionally, the Gavia comes equipped with an Ecopuck sensor, which measures turbidity (how much suspended matter there is in the water) and Chlorophyll A (a measure of primary productivity in the water).  A downward facing camera, an oxygen sensor, a temperature sensor, and depth sensor are further part of her payload.

As I walked down the gravel road this evening in the direction of the setting sun, surrounded by people who, a week ago, were complete strangers to me, I thought about how much we have accomplished in the past week and also how much fun we have had together. I’m certainly delighted to have been “engulfed” by such a wonderful team.


*Oh yes, Frankenstein Cookies were successfully thought up by Jen in an attempt to use up some leftover breakfast oatmeal and French toast batter.   Add some butter, sugar, chocolate chips, and flour and bake for 10 minutes.  Result – Delicious!

Jen making early morning Frankenstein Cookies.

Bienvenue au Lac Pavilion, Claudine!

Posted on July 4th, 2010 by Claudine Fortier

Bonjour tout le monde,

Je m’appelle Claudine (ou Poutine si vous voulez) et j’ai la chance de participer au PLRP cette année en tant que membre de l’équipe de UBC-Gavia. Je viens de terminer mes études de 1er cycle en génie des eaux à l’Université Laval, à Québec, et je fais présentement un stage à l’Université de British Columbia sous la supervision de Dr.Bernard Laval.

Notre équipe a donc le mandat de faire fonctionner le AUV (Autonomus Underwater Vehicle) Gavia-UBC et de récolter un maximum de données. Gavia-UBC est principalement équipé d’un CTD (Conductivité, Température, Profondeur), d’un scatteringmeter (chlorophylle, CDOM, Turbidité). Il y a donc beaucoup de données à traiter, ce qui occupe mon temps entre deux réparations de notre véhicule. En effet, notre AUV a éprouvé quelques difficultés depuis notre arrivée à PLRP mais, grâce entre autre à l’équipe du l’Université du Delaware qui nous prête gentiment certaines parties de leur AUV et aux nombreux efforts de l’équipe, nous avons réussi à le faire fonctionner convenablement.

Au moment d’écrire ces lignes, notre UBC-Gavia effectue une mission qui a pour but de couvrir une grande partie du bassin central du Lac Pavilion, à une profondeur constante de 40m. Cette mission dure environ 1h20min et devrait nous apporter de nombreuse données de conductivité que mon équipe traitera avec les logiciels MatLab et Fledermaus. On va encore aller se coucher vers 23h30-minuit, mais cela ne m’empêche pas de participer au club de course de 6h00am! Quel belle expérience à PLRP!

- Claudine Fortier

Claudine et Gavia-UBC

Bekah looks at the highway-side of Pavilion Lake

Posted on July 2nd, 2010 by Ben Cowie

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

First flights of 2010 – Alex and Mars get underwater

Posted on June 29th, 2010 by Ben Cowie

I had the pleasure of being on board for the first launch of the 2010 field season. For this post, I’m going to let the photos speak for themselves.  You can view the rest of the photos from the day on Picasa here.

Enjoy, - Ben

Margarita Kicks off the 2010 Field Season!

Posted on June 28th, 2010 by Ben Cowie

PLRP Flight number 20100628C

Ask a Scientist: Are scientists looking for similar lakes around the world that might have these microbialite structures?

Posted on June 27th, 2010 by Margarita Marinova

Question from Astrobiology Magazine regarding other microbialite supporting lakes around the world. Answered by Dr. Margarita Marinova. To ask your question, visit www.astrobio.net and search for the Pavilion Lake Research Project, or click this link: www.tinyurl.com/askplrp.

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Allyson and Bekah Arrive at the ISRU Field Site

Posted on February 3rd, 2010 by Bekah Shepard

Ahhhh, Hawaii. The Big Island. Palm trees, tropical ocean, coconuts, yummy coffee – you can’t beat a tropical field destination! Of course, when Allyson and I arrived at the site, this is what we saw…


ISRU Base Camp

Where are all the beaches and palm trees! Can you guess where we are on the Big Island? I’ll give you a few hints. It is quite chilly. We are quite close to the stars. How about this one: we are on the tallest mountain in the world if you measure from the seafloor! If you guessed Mauna Kea, you are correct!

The ISRU field site sits in a crater at about 9000 feet above sea level on the slopes of the extinct volcano Mauna Kea. The site was chosen because of the cold, dusty conditions and the presence of volcanics that are similar in many ways to what exists on the Moon. Working at a high elevation and on the slopes of a mountain can be pretty tough – plenty of wind, occasional dust storms, lots of fog, and the threat of altitude sickness or overexertion. In truth, however, it is also a beautiful place to work. Mauna Kea offers lovely views, interesting volcanic rocks, and the thrill of spending time on such a large and powerful mountain. In fact, Mauna Kea is considered a very spiritually powerful place to the native Hawaiians – you can check out a brief introduction to that history here: http://www.imiloahawaii.org/59/maunakea.

Hawaii... a fine place to do research in February! (Photo: Bekah Shepard)

Hawaii... a fine place to do research in February! (Photo: Bekah Shepard)

Base camp is a small tent city. We have a mess tent (yum – lunch!), a medical tent, an administration tent, tents for the scientists, tents for the engineers, and tents that function as garages for the instruments and robotics that are being tested. Allyson and I settled into one of the science tents, but didn’t stay inside too long! Right away, we set about following the various science and engineering teams in their testing activities. Details about what we found to come!

- Bekah


Posted on January 31st, 2010 by Bekah Shepard

Aloha! That’s right – PLRP is visiting Hawaii! To be more specific, Allyson and myself have journeyed to the Big Island to take part in another exploration analogue test – the In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) Test. ISRU is just a fancy way of saying “using the resources that are in place”, but in this case, we mean resources that are “in place” on the Moon or Mars. Some of the major goals of planetary exploration are sample return (bringing samples from other planets to Earth) and human exploration. Both of these ventures will require lots of fuel, and in the case of human exploration, plenty of oxygen and water. To send enough of these resources to the Moon or another planet would be incredibly expensive, and might even take several trips! Therefore, learning to use resources “in place” to generate fuel, oxygen, and water will be a great help to planetary exploration!

“But what are you Pavilion Lake researchers doing at an ISRU field test?” I hear you cry. It is true that our main focus at Pavilion Lake is the scientific exploration of the lake and its microbialites. However, as our project has grown and the exploration has become more complicated (submersibles, AUV’s, complicated communications, LOTS of people working to support the science) we realized that it can sometimes be challenging to keep the science as the top priority! In our struggles to do science as effectively and successfully as we can, we realized that developing metrics (tools for evaluating how successful we are at doing research) was surprisingly helpful!


Our tent at ISRU-Hawaii. Yes, this really is Hawaii.

We have since gone on to collaborate with folks developing the next generation Lunar Rover, and have applied our metrics to their Desert RATs analogue test site in Arizona. (Check out the NASA analogue site for more information about RATs: http://www.nasa.gov/exploration/analogs/). That collaboration has continued, and when the opportunity arose to test our metrics in yet another analogue setting, we jumped at the chance! Why? The balance between science, engineering, and operations in different in each of these analogue field tests, and that difference helps us to hone our metrics. We are gaining a better and better understanding of how science functions in each of these types of analogues, and that helps us all to become better exploration scientists.

Stay tuned for next time when Allyson and Bekah say “Hey! This is Hawaii! Where are all the beaches and palm trees!?!

- Bekah