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Expedition to study alien-like glacier

June 13, 2006
Courtesy Arctic Institute of North America
and World Science staff

An Arctic island that has yielded sensational fossils—reportedly from “missing link” fish that could walk—is now grabbing scientists’ attention for another reason.

Yellowish snow as a result of a discharge of sulfur springs in Ellesmere Island. (Courtesy Geological Survey of Canada)

This color-enhanced image shows the icy, fractured surface of Jupiter's moon Europa, lined with sulfur compounds (dark areas.) (Courtesy NASA)

Parts of Ellesmere Island may resemble the landscape of a distant moon that conceivably harbors life, researchers say. 

If so, a study of the territory might turn up clues to how life originates on other planets.

Four researchers from the University of Calgary in Canada plan to spend two weeks this summer studying a sulfur-spewing spring at the island.

“These sulfur springs in the Arctic may just put us one step closer to answering that age-old question: are we alone in the Universe?” said Alain Berinstain, Director of Planetary Exploration and Space Astronomy at the Canadian Space Agency.

The agency and NASA are helping to fund the expedition, because scientists say the spring may have similarities to areas of Jupiter’s moon Europa.

Scientists think Europa is one of the bodies in our Solar System most likely to harbor life, because a vast liquid ocean may lie below the ice blanketing the moon. Sulfur compounds also line much of its surface.

NASA scientists hope to send a probe to Europa to search for life. But before spending billions of dollars on this, researchers say, the agency would like to test its robots in a nearby place similar to Europa, such as the sulfur spring.

Initial tests have shown the geological oddity is home to a unique bacterium that thrives in a cold, sulfur-rich environment, said Benoit Beauchamp, executive director of the university’s Arctic Institute of North America.

“We really want to try and understand the plumbing system for this spring and where all this sulfur is coming from,” he added. “It’s an extreme ecosystem that could be a good model for how life first begins in a harsh environment.” 

Beauchamp discovered the spring in the mid-1990s when he noticed a yellow stain from sulfur on the snow while passing over the island’s Borup Fiord Pass in a helicopter. He visited the site and noticed a rotten-egg smell, again from sulfur. 

Later tests found the new bacteria and an extremely rare mineral called vaterite, the researchers said. Sulfur-loving organisms have been found living in scalding water near ocean-floor springs called geothermal vents, but they seldom turn up in cold places. 

Beauchamp and his team plan to leave for the glacier on June 21, reach the site by helicopter and camp near its base. They will then study the spring, taking water, mineral and rock samples.

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