The exploration of the Antarctic continent readily conjures up images of desolation. But for humans to survive there, they must be members of carefully planned, integrated teams. As the American leader of a joint US/Soviet expedition to Antarctica, biologist Dale Andersen spent six months with a multinational, multicultural crew in this remote, hostile environment, carrying out research relevant to the search for life on Mars. “In addition to the rigors of the local environment,” says Andersen, “we had to address the challenges of our differing cultures and languages.”
Andersen's research takes him to such diverse environments as Chile’s Atacama Desert, the ancient permafrost of Siberia, the world's northernmost lakes and springs in the Canadian high Arctic, and the depths of the polar oceans. “My work in the polar regions has involved a lot of underwater time in remote areas,” says Andersen, “and over the years I have made close to a thousand dives beneath thick ice of lakes and oceans.” Andersen’s team has learned that beneath the thick ice-cover of the lakes reside robust microbial communities, similar in many ways to life on Earth billions of years ago. “To our surprise,” he recounts, “we found microbial communities living beneath ice more than twenty feet thick. Initially, we did not think enough light would penetrate the ice cover to support photosynthetic life forms."
The Mars Exploration Rovers show compelling evidence that water once flowed freely on Mars. As the temperature on Mars cooled, ice-covered lakes may have formed, similar to the lakes Andersen studies in Antarctica and the High Arctic. And if life existed on early Mars, it may have continued to live even as the Martian lakes froze over. By investigating the ice-covered lakes of Antarctica, Andersen hopes to learn more about the history of water--and perhaps life--on Mars
Dale’s research interests are with the origin, evolution and distribution of life in the universe and he has been involved with NASA’s Exobiology and Astrobiology programs since the mid 1980’s. He is interested in locating, characterizing and understanding environments where physical and chemical conditions approach or exceed the tolerances for life. This includes biogeochemical processes occurring in polar lakes, oceans, and springs, or in lithic environments such as sandstones or retrogressive thaw slumps harbouring massive ground ice. Of particular interest are the physical controls and ecological impacts that perennial ice-covers and thick continuous permafrost have on the structure and function of microbial ecosystems.
- SETI Institute