McGill High Arctic Research Station Photo Report – Dale Anderson: 8 April 2009 Color Peak Springs

Photo: Steam rising from carbonate terraces formed at Color Peak Perennial Spring (N79*22.866′ W091*16.270′). Color Peak, a salt dome in the background. Photo: Dale Anderson (c)2009

There are many regions on Earth where the average annual temperature is below freezing, yet liquid water persists. Such polar regions provide excellent analogs for studying the hydrological cycle under conditions prevailing in the polar desert environment of Mars.

Flows of energy and water are strongly coupled in continuous permafrost regions. However, most scientific studies of northern hydrology are limited to surface process studies focusing on precipitation, snowmelt, evaporation, slope runoff, and runoff. Springs located on Axel Heiberg Island provide insight into the limits of physical and biological processes associated with groundwater in cold polar deserts. These qualities make them valuable as analogs for groundwater activity on Mars.

Color Peak Springs (photo) are located about 100 m ASL on the south-facing slope of Color Peak, emerging from the top of the slope through a line approximately 400 m long. These springs are grouped into 3 distinct landscape control areas with 20 vents discharging directly into Expedition Fjord on a three hundred meter slope. Interestingly, the springs on Axel Heiberg Island flow throughout the year with little variation in their temperature and are not associated with volcanic activity.

McGill Arctic Research Station (MARS)

The McGill Arctic Research Station is located 8 km inland from Expedition Fjord, Nunavut, on central Axel Heiberg Island in the Canadian High Arctic (approximately 79oh26'N, 90oh46'W). Established in 1960 on the shores of Color Lake, MARS is one of the longest-running seasonal field research facilities in the High Arctic, providing access to glacial, glacial, and polar desert and tundra environments. Researchers using MARS have accumulated the longest continuous mass balance record of any high Arctic glacier (White Glacier). Past and present research conducted on various springs has been supported by this facility.

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Groundwater and the Search for Life on Mars

Despite the vast differences between the two planets today, Mars and Earth may have been very similar early in their history. If life had developed on Mars as it did on early Earth, it might have faced premature extinction as the Martian cryosphere enveloped the entire planet, thinning out its atmosphere and depriving it of liquid water on the surface. Or perhaps it retreated to surface refugia. Nevertheless, even when Mars was wet, it was cool. Thus the hydrologic cycle in Earth's cooler regions provides an excellent analog for Martian hydrology. From studies of springs, rivers, and lakes in the polar regions, quantitative models have been developed that show how liquid water can persist on Mars even when the average annual temperature is below freezing.

Arctic (and Antarctic) located springs, remnant ice sheets, bingos, and massive ground-ice deposits provide opportunities to study microbial ecosystems in extreme polar environments.

Limitations in temperature, pH, redox, nutrient availability, and large seasonal variations in light undoubtedly shape ecosystem structure and function, as well as affect the biological record left in sediments. Mars may have once hosted microbial ecosystems in a physical setting not too dissimilar to Earth's polar regions. Studies of terrestrial microbial ecosystems in areas of dense, continuous permafrost can help determine the nature of Mars' early climate, the presence of groundwater, or whether Mars ever harbored life.

Our work has been supported in many ways, and we would like to acknowledge support for fieldwork from the Canadian Polar Continental Shelf Project, NASA's Exobiology Program, the Canadian Space Agency, McGill University High Arctic Research Station, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. of Canada. Additional funding for student research was provided by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, the Northern Science Training Program, and the McGill University Center for Climate and Global Change Research.

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