A team assembled by the University of Calgary's Arctic Institute of North America plans to spend two weeks studying a sulfur-spewing spring on the surface of an ice field not far from the North Pole this summer, after it was discovered by Institute Executive Director Dr. Benoit Beauchamp during his travels in the area. Beauchamp, U of C adjunct professor Dr. Steve Grasby from the Geological Survey of Canada, and two graduate students will conduct the first extensive study of the spring after initial tests showed the geological oddity is home to a unique form of bacteria that has adapted to thrive in a cold and sulfur-rich environment.
"We really want to try and understand the plumbing system for this spring and where all this sulfur is coming from," Beauchamp said. "This is a very unusual feature on the earth's surface and it's an extreme ecosystem that could be a good model for how life first begins in a harsh environment."
The spring has also attracted the attention of the Canadian Space Agency and NASA, which are helping to fund the expedition, because it likely provides the best example on Earth for the conditions believed to exist on the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa. Ice-covered Europa is considered one of the best candidates for finding evidence of life on other planets within our solar system. Sending a probe to the planet is high on NASA's list of possible projects. Graduate student Damhnait Gleeson from the University Colorado, on a project sponsored by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, will be taking part in the study to determine if it will be worthwhile testing spacecraft and remote-control rover equipment on the glacier in the future.