A recent story posted on EOS (Earth & Space Science News) shows us the lengths — or rather, the depths — some scientists go to in their research. The story, illustrated by spectacular photos and an audio slideshow, follows Penn State graduate student Kiya Riverman as she probes the twisting chambers far inside a massive Norwegian glacier. Picture a slot canyon in Utah’s redrock desert, but in shades of black and white and espresso brown. That’s what her glacier cave looks like.
Studying a glacier “from the inside out,” as Riverman puts it, enables her to see firsthand how the ice is changing as surface temperatures rise. She’s been doing research on glaciers and ice sheets for many years from atop the ice, and although she had enjoyed recreational spelunking for a long time, the hobby didn’t intersect with her research until 2010, when a colleague invited her to help him map a glacier cave in Svalbard, Norway. Since then she’s visited the cave many times to monitor its development, as meltwater from the surface spills through it, deepening the chambers, cutting new passages, and reshaping its walls.
Spelunking is also central to the work of Penn State geomicrobiologist Jenn Macalady, as described in an EOS story from last year. She studies the microbes that call the perpetually dark underworld home. The existence of these microbes demolishes one of the first lessons of junior high biology: that all life on Earth depends on sunlight. In a habitat where no light penetrates, ever, what are these guys eating? The rocks. Many of the microbes Macalady studies use sulfur as an energy source. Others use other iron or other minerals, or prey on the sulfur-eaters. There’s a whole thriving ecosystem down there, complete with symbiotic relationships and communities of cooperating species. They even help shape their subterranean environment.
Macalady also examines microbes collected from unusual features at the bottom of lakes or the sea where a lack of mixing has led to pockets of water with little or no oxygen, extremely high salt levels, or other presumably toxic conditions. As in the caves, these seemingly hostile places are not devoid of life.
The coolest thing about the microbes that live in these really, really out-of-the-way places is that they may give us our best look at what the first organisms on Earth were like and what organisms on other planets might be like — and where we might find them. Because of them, we know that when we go looking for life on other worlds, we can’t just test for oxygen-based respiration. We need to look deeper.
Members of the media interested in talking with Kiya Riverman or Jenn Macalady, please contact Cherie Winner at (814)863-4750 or firstname.lastname@example.org.