Beneath the surface of Pavilion Lake are fascinating carbonate rock structures with diverse sizes and morphology. The structures, called microbialites, are similar to stromatolites, and are rare on today's earth. These structures are believed to be formed, in whole or in part, by microorganisms. The microorganisms that live on the structures are single celled bacteria and algae, and are common inhabitants of aquatic environments. These types microbialites were very common for about two billion years of earth's early history. The microbialites in Pavilion Lake provide an analog for the biogeochemical processes active on early Earth and potentially on other planets such as Mars. The Pavilion Lake Research Project was founded to characterize the morphogenesis (formation) and preservation potential of the microbialites in Pavilion Lake.
PLRP research is conducted from the lake’s surface, as well as underwater. To explore underwater, the team uses a variety of tools: SCUBA, autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and submersibles. We carefully select our exploration mechanism to best suit our specific science goals. For example, to map the lake, we are using single person, Deepworker subs that enable humans to gain first hand knowledge of the entire lake, while gathering visual and sonar data. The way we choose to explore at Pavilion Lake also has relevance to the space exploration community. Our underwater operations with humans and robots provide a learning opportunity for understanding how to operate in the hostile and challenging environments of the Moon and Mars.
The activities at the site are considered analog research and of great interest to the CSA and NASA for two main reasons:
1. The microbialite structures provide a modern analog to ancient fossilized microbialites preserved on Earth. Studying how these modern structures form and are preserved in the rock record will provide us with tools to identify signatures of ancient life on our own and other planets.
2. Our research and exploration using remotely operated vehicle (ROV's), autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV's), scuba divers and submersibles provide an analog to human exploration missions on the Moon and Mars. The research and exploration methods developed at Pavilion Lake will contribute to future human mission planning and exploration science on the Moon and Mars.
The Pavilion Lake Research Project brings together a large and diverse group of students, expert scientists, engineers, and astronauts to explore and study Pavilion Lake's unique microbialite structures. Working with the Pavilion Lake community, we strive to protect and preserve the unique environment that we study while advancing science and human exploration.
During the 2011 field season, the PLRP team faced an exciting new challenge as they moved up the road to Clinton, B.C. to explore Kelly Lake. Kelly Lake also hosts microbialites that in many ways are similar to those we’ve been researching in Pavilion Lake and although the team had done some preliminary investigations of Kelly using SCUBA, they had not had the opportunity to explore it to the same extent as Pavilion until 2011.
As microbialites in freshwater lakes are fairly rare, it is a rather unique situation to find not one but two lakes in close proximity to each other that have similar structures. This has piqued our curiosity and made us ask what we can learn from Kelly Lake and from understanding the formation processes behind the microbialites present here. For the 2011 field season we transferred knowledge and lessons gathered from our years of work at Pavilion Lake and applied that information to studying the microbialites present at Kelly Lake. Similar to the microbialites in Pavilion Lake, Kelly Lake microbialites are an important analogue for the biogeochemical processes active on early Earth and potentially on other planets such as Mars. By characterizing Kelly Lake in addition to Pavilion, we will continue to contribute to a greater understanding of the factors that initiate and control the growth of microbialites in regions around the world. Our exploration of the lake was built on the core exploration and science foundation we’ve developed at Pavilion. To map the lake we used DeepWorker submersibles in addition to SCUBA and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) guided by the lessons we have learned in previous years. An international and interdisciplinary team of researchers came together to investigate the biology and chemistry of the lake with questions and hypotheses based on observations we’ve made at Pavilion. A few of the main science objectives that formed the basis for our 2011 field season at Kelly Lake are:
1. Map the distribution and characterize the morphology of the microbialites at Kelly Lake. What is the distribution of microbialites in Kelly Lake? Are the shapes and sizes similar to what we see at Pavilion?
2. Measure the growth rates of the microbialites at Kelly Lake.Are the growth rates of the microbialites similar between the two lakes? We know that the rate sedimentation in Kelly Lake is higher than in Pavilion, does this play a role in how fast the microbialites grow?
3. Characterize the microbial community (bacteria, viruses, algae) that live on/in the microbialites.Are the bacteria that live on the surface of the microbialites the same as those that we’ve identified on the Pavilion Lake microbialites?
4. Identify processes that contribute to the formation of microbialites.What factors (biological, chemical, physical) are the same between the two lakes that supports the formation of microbialites in these locations but not in other nearby lakes (e.g. Pear Lake)?