CR
Cryospheric Sciences

Antarctic ice sheet

Image of the Week – Delaying the flood with glacial geoengineering

Figure 1: Three examples of glacial geoengineering techniques to mitigate sea-level rise from ice-sheet melting [Credit: Adapted from Figure 1 of Moore et al. (2018); Design: Claire Welsh/Nature].

As the climate is currently warming, many countries and cities are preparing to cope with one of its major impacts, namely sea-level rise. Up to now, the mitigation of climate change has mainly focused on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Large-scale geoengineering has also been proposed to remove carbon from the atmosphere or inject aerosols into the stratosphere to limit the rise in temperature. But locally-targeted geoengineering techniques could also provide a way to avoid some of the worst impacts, like the sea-level rise. In this Image of the Week, we present examples of such a technique that could be applied to the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets (Moore et al., 2018; Wolovick and Moore, 2018).


Sea level is rising…

The sea level of the world oceans has been rising at a mean rate of 3 mm per year since the 1990s, mainly due to ocean thermal expansion, land-ice melting and changes in freshwater storage (see this post). More than 90% of coastal areas could experience a sea-level rise exceeding 20 cm with a 2°C warming (relative to the pre-industrial period), which is likely to happen by the middle of this century (Jevrejeva et al., 2016).

The Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets constitute two huge reservoirs of ice and contain the equivalent of 60 and 7 m of sea-level rise, respectively, if completely melted. Although a complete disintegration of these two ice sheets is not on the agenda in the coming years, surface melting of the Greenland ice sheet and the flow of some major polar glaciers could be enhanced by different positive feedbacks (see this post on climate feedbacks and this post on marine ice sheet instability). These feedbacks would elevate the sea level even more than projected by the models.

… but could potentially be delayed by glacial geoengineering

In order to cope with this threat, reducing our greenhouse gas emissions might not be sufficient to delay the rise of sea level. One alternative has been suggested by Moore et al. (2018) and consists of using glacial geoengineering techniques in the vicinity of fast-flowing glaciers of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. They propose three different ways to delay sea-level rise from these glaciers and these are presented in our Image of the Week (Fig. 1):

A.   A pumping station could be installed at the top of the glacier with the aim of extracting or freezing the water at the glacier base. This would slow down the glacier sliding on the bedrock and reduce its contribution to sea-level rise.

B.   An artificial island (about 300 m high) could be built in the cavity under the floating section of the glacier (or ice shelf). This would enhance the so-called buttressing effect (see this post) and decrease the glacier flow to the ocean.

C.   A wall of up to 100 m high could be built in the ocean bay right in the front of the ice shelf. This would block (partially or completely) any warm water circulating underneath the ice shelf and delay the sub-shelf melting (see this post).

In theory

Wolovick and Moore (2018) studied in detail the possibility of building artificial islands (proposal B above) underneath the ice shelf of Thwaites Glacier (West Antarctica), one of the largest glacier contributors to the ongoing sea-level rise. They used a simple ice-flow model coupled to a simple ocean model and considered different warming scenarios in which they introduced an artificial island underneath the ice shelf.

Figure 2 below illustrates an example coming from their analysis. In the beginning (Fig. 2b), the grounding line (separation between the grounded ice sheet in blue and the floating ice shelf in purple) is located on top of a small mountain range. When running the model under a global warming scenario, the grounding line retreats inland and the glacier enters into a ‘collapsing phase’ (Fig. 2c; marine ice sheet instability). The introduction of an artificial island under the ice shelf with a potential to block half the warm ocean water allows the ice shelf to reground (Fig. 2d; the ice-shelf base touches the top of the small island below). The unprotected seaward part of the ice shelf shrinks over time, while the protected inland part thickens and regrounds (Fig. 2e-f), which overall decreases the glacier mass loss to the ocean.

Figure 2: Example of a model experiment realized on Thwaites Glacier by Wolovick and Moore (2018). Different times are presented and show the (b) initial state, (c) the collapse underway, (d) the initial effect of the construction of the artificial island below the ice shelf, (e) the removal of the seaward ice shelf and thickening of the landward ice shelf, (f) the stabilization of the glacier [Credit: Figure 5 of Wolovick and Moore (2018)].

In practice

The model experiments presented above show that delaying sea-level rise from glacier outflow is possible in theory. In practice, this would mean substantial geoengineering efforts. For building a small artificial island under the ice shelf of Pine Island Glacier (West Antarctica), 0.1 km3 of gravel and sand would be necessary. That same quantity would be sufficient to build a 100 m high wall in front of Jakobshavn Glacier (Greenland) to prevent warm water from melting the ice base. For building such a wall in front of Pine Island Glacier, a quantity of 6 km3 (60 times more than Jakobshavn) of material would be needed.

In comparison, the Three Gorges Dam used 0.03 km3 of cast concrete, the Hong Kong’s airport required around 0.3 km3 of landfill, and the excavation of the Suez Canal necessitated 1 km3 of material. Thus, the quantities needed for building glacial geoengineering structures are comparable in size to the current large engineering projects.

However, many other aspects need to be considered when implementing such a project. In particular, the construction of such structures in cold waters surrounded by icebergs and sea ice is much more difficult than in a typical temperate climate. A detailed study of physical processes in the region of the glacier, such as ocean circulation, iceberg calving, glacier sliding and erosion, and melting rates, is needed before performing such projects. Also, the number of people needed to work on a project of this scale is an important factor to include.

Potential adverse effects

Beside all the factors that need to be considered to implement such a project, there is a list of potential adverse effects. One of the main risks is to the marine ecosystems, which could be affected by the constructions of the islands and walls. Also, if not properly designed, the geoengineering solutions could accelerate the sea-level rise instead of delaying it. For instance, in the case of water extraction (proposal A above), the glacier might speed up rather than slow down if water at the glacier’s base is trapped in pockets.

Wolovick and Moore (2018) do not advocate that glacial geoengineering is done any time soon, due to the different factors mentioned above. Instead, they suggest that we start thinking about technological solutions that could delay sea-level rise. Other studies also look at different glacial geoengineering ideas (see this post).

In summary

Glacial geoengineering techniques constitute a potential way to cope with one of the greatest challenges related to global warming, namely sea-level rise. In theory, these projects are possible, while in practice a series of technical difficulties and potential ecological risks do not allow us to implement them soon.

While important to keep thinking about these solutions, the most important action that humanity can take in order to delay sea-level rise is to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. And scientists like us need to keep carefully studying the cryosphere and the Earth’s climate in general.

Further reading

Edited by Jenny Turton


David Docquier is a post-doctoral researcher at the Earth and Life Institute of Université catholique de Louvain (UCL) in Belgium. He works on the development of processed-based sea-ice metrics in order to improve the evaluation of global climate models (GCMs). His study is embedded within the EU Horizon 2020 PRIMAVERA project, which aims at developing a new generation of high-resolution GCMs to better represent the climate.

 

Image of the Week — Quantifying Antarctica’s ice loss

Fig. 1 Cumulative Antarctic Ice Sheet mass change since 1992. [Credit: Fig 2. from The IMBIE team (2018), reprinted with permission from Nature]

It is this time of the year, where any news outlet is full of tips on how to lose weight rapidly to  become beach-body ready. According to the media avalanche following the publication of the ice sheet mass balance inter-comparison exercise (IMBIE) team’s Nature paper, Antarctica is the biggest loser out there. In this Image of the Week, we explain how the international team managed to weight Antarctica’s ice sheet and what they found.


Estimating the Antarctic ice sheet’s mass change

There are many ways to quantify Antarctica’s mass and mass change and most of them rely on satellites. In fact, the IMBIE team notes that there are more than 150 papers published on the topic. Their paper that we highlight this week is remarkable in that it combines all the methods in order to produce just one, easy to follow, time series of Antarctica’s mass change. But what are these methods? The IMBIE team  used estimates from three types of methods:

  •  altimetry: tracking changes in elevation of the ice sheet, e.g. to detect a thinning;
  •  gravimetry: tracking changes in the gravitational pull caused by a change in mass;
  •  input-output: comparing changes in snow accumulation and solid ice discharge.

To simplify, let’s imagine that you’re trying to keep track of how much weight you’re losing/gaining. Then  altimetry would be like looking at yourself in a mirror, gravimetry would be stepping on a scale, and input-output would be counting all the calories you’re taking in and  burning out. None of these methods will tell you directly whether you have lost belly fat, but combining them will.

The actual details of each methods are rather complex and cover more pages than the core of the paper, so I invite you to read them by yourself (from page 5 onwards). But long story short, all estimates were turned into one unique time series of ice sheet mass balance (purple line on Fig. 1). Furthermore, to understand how each region of Antarctica contributed to the time series, the scientists also produced one time series per main  Antarctic region (Fig. 2): the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (green line), the East Antarctic Ice Sheet (yellow line), and the Antarctic Peninsula (red line) .

Antarctica overview map. [Credit: NASA]

Antarctica is losing ice

The results are clear: the Antarctic ice sheet as a whole is losing mass, and this mass loss is accelerating. Nearly 3000 Giga tonnes since 1992. That is 400 billion elephants in 25 years, or on average 500 elephants per second.

Most of this signal originates from West Antarctica, with a current trend of 159 Gt (22 billion elephants) per year. And most of this West Antarctic signal comes from the Amundsen Sea sector, host notably to the infamous  Pine Island  and Thwaites Glaciers.

The Antarctic ice sheet has lost “400 billion elephants in 25 years”

But how is the ice disappearing? Rather, is the ice really disappearing, or is there simply less ice added to Antarctica than ice naturally removed, i.e. a change in surface mass balance? The IMBIE team studied this as well. And they found that there is no Antarctic ice sheet wide trend in surface mass balance; in other words Antarctica is shrinking because more and more ice is discharged into the ocean, not because it receives less snow from the atmosphere.

Floating ice shelf in the Halley embayment, East Antarctica [Credit: Céline Heuzé]

What is happening in East Antarctica?

Yet another issue with determining Antarctica’s weight loss is Glacial Isostatic Adjustment. In a nutshell, ice is heavy, and its weight pushes the ground down. When the ice disappears, the ground goes back up, but much more slowly than the rate of ice melting . This process has been ongoing in Scandinavia notably since the end of the last ice age 21 000 years ago, but it is also happening in East Antarctica by about 5 to 7 mm per year (more information here). Except that there are very few on site GPS measurements in Antarctica to determine how much land is rising, and the many estimations of this uplifting disagree.

So as summarised by the IMBIE team, we do not know yet what the change in ice thickness is where glacial isostatic adjustment is strong, because we are unsure how strong this adjustment is there. As a result in East Antarctica, we do not know whether there is ice loss or not, because it is unclear what the ground is doing.

What do we do now?

The IMBIE team concludes their paper with a list of required actions to improve the ice loss time series: more in-situ observations using airborne radars and GPS, and uninterrupted satellite observations (which we already insisted on earlier).

What about sea level rise, you may think. Or worse, looking at our image of the week, you see the tiny +6mm trend in 10 years and think that it is not much. No, it is not. But note that the trend is far from linear and has been actually accelerating in the last decades…

 

Reference/Further reading

The IMBIE Team, 2018. Mass balance of the Antarctic Ice Sheet from 1992-2017. Nature 558, 219–222.

Edited by Sophie Berger

Image of the Week – Antarctica: A decade of dynamic change

Fig. 1 – Annual rate of change in ice sheet height attributable to ice dynamics. Zoomed regions show (a) the Amundsen Sea Embayment and West Marie Byrd Land sectors of West Antarctica, (b) the Bellingshausen Sea Sector including the Fox and Ferrigno Ice Streams and glaciers draining into the George VI ice shelf and (c) the Totten Ice Shelf. The results are overlaid on a hill shade map of ice sheet elevation from Bedmap2 (Fretwell et al. 2013) and the grounding line and ice shelves are shown in grey (Depoorter et al. 2013). [Credit: Stephen Chuter]

  

Whilst we tend to think of the ice flow in Antarctica as a very slow and steady process, the wonders of satellites have shown over the last two decades it is one of the most dynamic places on Earth! This image of the week maps this dynamical change using all the satellite tools at a scientist’s disposal with novel statistical methods to work out why the change has recently been so rapid.


Why do we care about dynamic changes in Antarctica ?!

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet has the potential to contribute an approximate 3.3 m to global sea level rise (Bamber et al. 2009). Therefore, being able to accurately quantify observed ice sheet mass losses and gains is imperative for assessing not only their current contribution to the sea level budget, but also to inform ice sheet models to help better predict future ice sheet behaviour.

An ice sheet can gain or lose mass primarily through two different processes:

  • changes in surface mass balance (variations in snowfall and surface melt driven by atmospheric processes) or
  • ice dynamics, which is where variations in the flow of the ice sheet (such as an increase in its velocity) leads to changes in the amount of solid ice discharged from the continent into the ocean. In Antarctica ice flow dynamics are typically regulated by the ice shelves that surround the ice sheet; which provide a buttressing stress to help hold back the rate of flow.

Understanding the magnitude of each of these two components is key to understanding the external forcing driving the observed ice sheet changes.

This Image of the Week shows the annual rates of ice sheet elevation change which are attributed to changes in ice dynamics between 2003 and 2013 (Fig. 1) (Martín-Español et al. 2016). This is calculated by combining observations from multiple satellites (GRACE, ENVISAT, ICESat and CryoSat-2) with in-situ GPS measurements in  a Bayesian Hierarchical Model. The challenge we face is that the observations we have of ice sheet change (whether that being total height change from altimetry or mass changes from GRACE) vary on their spatial and temporal scales and can only tell us the total mass change signal, not the magnitudes or proportions of the underlying processes driving it. The Bayesian statistical approach used here takes these observations and separates them proportionally into their most likely processes, aided by prior knowledge of the spatial and temporal characteristics for each process we want to resolve. This allows us reducing the reliance on using forward model outputs to resolve for processes we cannot observe. As a result, it is unique from other methods of determining ice sheet mass change, which rely on model outputs which in some cases have hard to quantify uncertainties.  This methodology has been applied to Antarctica and is currently being used to resolve the sea level budget and its constituent components through the ERC GlobalMass project.

What can we learn from Bayesian statistical approach?

This approach firstly allows us to quantitively assess the annual contribution that the Antarctic ice sheet is making to the global sea level budget, which is vital to better understanding the magnitude each Earth system process is playing in sea level change. Additionally, by being able to break down the total change into its component processes, we can better understand what external factors are driving this change. Ice dynamics has been the dominant component of mass loss in recent years over the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and is therefore the process being focussed on in this image.

Amundsen Sea Embayment : a rapidly thinning area

Since 2003 there have been major changes in the dynamic behaviour over the Amundsen Sea Embayment and West Marie Byrd Land region (Fig 1, inset a). This region is undergoing some of the most rapid dynamical changes across Antarctica, with a 5 m/yr ice dynamical thinning near the outlet of the Pope and Smith Glacier. Additionally the Bayesian hierarchical model results show that dynamic thinning has spread inland from the margins of Pine Island Glacier, agreeing with elevation trends measured by satellite altimetry over the last two decades (Konrad et al. 2016).

These changes are driven primarily by the rapid thinning of the floating ice shelves at the ice sheet margin in this region

The importance of ice dynamics  is also illustrated in Fig 2, which shows  surface processes and ice dynamics components of mass changes over the Amundsen Sea Embayment from the bayesian hierarchical model. Fig 2 demonstrates that ice dynamics is the primary driver of mass losses in the region. Ice dynamic mass loss increased dramatically from 2003-2011, potentially stabilising to a new steady state since 2011.

Fig. 2 – Annual mass changes due to ice dynamics (pink line) and SMB (blue line) for the period 2003-2013 from the Bayesian hierarchical model approach. Red dots represent mass change anomaly (changes from the long term mean) due to surface mass balance calculated by the RACMO2.3 model and allow for comparison with our Bayesian framework results. (calculated from observations of ice velocity and ice thickness at the grounding line and allow for comparison with our Bayesian framework results (Mouginot et al, 2014). [Credit: Fig. 9b from Martín-Español et al., 2016].

 

The onset of  dynamic thinning can also be seen in glaciers draining into the Getz Ice Shelf, which is experiencing high localised rates of ice shelf thinning up to 66.5 m per decade (Paolo et al. 2015) . This corroborates with ice speed-up recently seen in the region (Chuter et al. 2017; Gardner et al. 2018). We have limited field observations of ice characteristics in this region and therefore more extensive surveys are required to fully understand causes of this dynamic response.

Bellingshausen Sea Sector :  Not as stable as previously thought…

 The Bellingshausen Sea Sector (Fig 1, inset b) was previously considered relatively a dynamically stable section of the Antarctic coastline, however recent analysis from a forty year record of satellite imagery has shown that the majority of the grounding line in this region has retreated  (Christie et al. 2016). This is reflected in the presence of a dynamic thinning signal in the bayesian hierarchical model results near the Fox and Ferrigno Ice streams and over some glaciers draining into the George VI ice shelf, which have been observed from CryoSat-2 radar altimetry (Wouters et al. 2015). The dynamic changes in this region over the last decade highlight the importance of continually monitoring all regions of the ice sheet with satellite remote sensing in order to understand the what the long term response over multiple decades is to changes in the Earth’s climate and ocean forcing.

Outlook

Multiple  satellite missions have allowed us to measure changes occurring across the ice sheet in unprecedented detail over the last decade. The launch of the GRACE-Follow On mission earlier this week and the expected launch of ICESat-2 in September will ensure this capability continues well into the future. This will provide much needed further observations to allow us to understand ice sheet dynamics over time scales of multiple decades. The bayesian hierarchical approach being demonstrated will be developed further to encompass these new data sets and extend the results into the next decade. In addition to satellite measurements, the launch of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration  between NERC and NSF will provide much needed field observations for the Thwaites Glacier region of the Amundsen Sea Embayment, to better understand whether it has entered a state of irreversible instability .

Data
The  Bayesian hierarchical model mass trends shown here (Martín-Español et al. 2016) are available from the UK Polar Data Centre. In addition, the time series has been extended until 2015 and is available on request from Stephen Chuter (s.chuter@bristol.ac.uk). This work is part of the ongoing ERC GlobalMass project, which aims to attribute global sea level rise into its constituent components using a Bayesian Hierarchical Model approach. The GlobalMass project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 69418.

References

Christie, Frazer D. W. et al. 2016. “Four-Decade Record of Pervasive Grounding Line Retreat along the Bellingshausen Margin of West Antarctica.” Geophysical Research Letters 43(11): 5741–49. http://doi.wiley.com/10.1002/2016GL068972.

Chuter, S.J., A. Martín-Español, B. Wouters, and J.L. Bamber. 2017. “Mass Balance Reassessment of Glaciers Draining into the Abbot and Getz Ice Shelves of West Antarctica.” Geophysical Research Letters 44(14).

Gardner, Alex S. et al. 2018. “Increased West Antarctic and Unchanged East Antarctic Ice Discharge over the Last 7 Years.” Cryosphere 12(2): 521–47.

Martín-Español, Alba et al. 2016. “Spatial and Temporal Antarctic Ice Sheet Mass Trends, Glacio-Isostatic Adjustment, and Surface Processes from a Joint Inversion of Satellite Altimeter, Gravity, and GPS Data.” Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface 121(2): 182–200. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/2015JF003550.

Mouginot, J, E Rignot, and B Scheuchl. 2014. “Sustained Increase in Ice Discharge from the Amundsen Sea Embayment, West Antarctica, from 1973 to 2013.” Geophysical Research Letters 41(5): 1576–84.

Paolo, Fernando S, Helen A Fricker, and Laurie Padman. 2015. “Volume Loss from Antarctic Ice Shelves Is Accelerating.” Science 348(6232): 327–31. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2015/03/31/science.aaa0940.abstract.

Edited by Violaine Coulon and Sophie Berger


Stephen Chuter is a post-doctoral research associate in Polar Remote Sensing and Sea Level at the University of Bristol. He combines multiple satellite and ground observations of ice sheet and glacier change with novel statistical modelling techniques to better determine their contribution to the global sea level budget. He tweets as @StephenChuter and can be found at www.stephenchuter.wordpress.com. Contact email: s.chuter@bristol.ac.uk

Image of the Week – Searching for clues of extraterrestrial life on the Antarctic ice sheet

Fig. 1: A meteorite in the Szabo Bluff region of the Transantarctic mountain range, lying in wait for the 2012 ANSMET team to collect it [Credit: Antarctic Search for Meteorites Program / Katherine Joy].

Last week we celebrated Antarctica Day, 50 years after the Antarctic Treaty was signed. This treaty includes an agreement to protect Antarctic ecosystems. But what if, unintentionally, this protection also covered clues of life beyond Earth? In this Image of the Week, we explore how meteorites found in Antarctica are an important piece of the puzzle in the search for extraterrestrial life.


Meteorites in Antarctica

Year after year, teams of scientists from across the globe travel to Antarctica for a variety of scientific endeavours, from glaciologists studying flowing ice to atmospheric scientists examining the composition of the air and biologists studying life on the ice, from penguins to cold-loving microorganisms. Perhaps a less conspicuous group of scientists are the meteorite hunters.

Antarctica is the best place on Earth to find meteorites. Meteorites that fall in this cold, dry desert are spared from the high corrosion rates of warmer, wetter environments, preserving them in relatively pristine condition. They are also much easier to spot mainly due to the contrast between their dark surfaces on the white icy landscape (see our Image of the Week), but also because the combination of Antarctica’s climate, topography and the movement of ice serves to concentrate meteorites, as if lying in wait to be found.

The targeted search for meteorites has taken place annually since the late 1960s, leading to the recovery of over 50,000 specimens from the continent, and counting. The most prolific of these search teams is the US-led Antarctic Search for Meteorites ANSMET), which lay claim to over half of these finds. Comprising only a handful of enthusiasts, this team camps out on the slopes of the Transantarctic Mountains for around 6 weeks hunting for meteorites. The finds include rocks originating from asteroids, the Moon and Mars.

 

Evidence of life in a meteorite?

There has long been a link between meteorites and the potential for life beyond Earth. Perhaps the most famous, or rather infamous, meteorite found in Antarctica is the Alan Hills 84001 meteorite (ALH84001). Found by the 1984 ANSMET team, this meteorite was blasted from the surface of Mars some 17 million years ago as a result of an asteroid or meteorite impact, falling to Earth around 13,000 years ago. This piece of crystallised Martian lava is roughly 4.5 billion years old. The reason for its infamy is the widely publicised claim made a decade after its discovery that it harbours evidence of Martian life [McKay et al 1996]. Specifically, application of high resolution electron microscopy unearthed microstructures comprising magnetite crystals that looked, to the NASA scientist David McKay and his team, like fossilised microbial life, albeit at the nanoscale (see Fig. 2).

Fig.2: A nanoscale magnetite microstructure that was interpreted as fossilised microbial life from Mars [Credit: D McKay (NASA), K. Thomas-Keprta (Lockheed-Martin), R. Zare (Stanford), NASA].

Such a finding of evidence for extraterrestrial life has huge implications for the presence of life beyond Earth, a subject that has captivated humankind since ancient times. This extraordinary claim made headline news across the globe. It even gained acknowledgement by the then US president Bill Clinton. In the words popularised by Carl Sagan, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, and this one garnered considerable controversy that endures today. At the time, there was no known process that did not involve life that could result in these types of structures. Subsequent research, triggered by this claim, has since indicated otherwise. The debate rolls on, and it seems we will never really know whether the crystals structures are fossils of Martian life or not, with no conclusive evidence on either side of the argument. Nevertheless, the interest and attention gained through this story kick-started a flurry of hugely successful Mars exploration missions, as well as reinvigorated the search for life beyond Earth.

 

Meteorites as microbial fuel

The ALH840001 is an unusual connection between meteorites and the search for extraterrestrial life. Much subtler, but more wide-reaching, is the potentially important connection between organic-containing meteorites and the existence of life elsewhere. The chondrite class of meteorites originates from the early solar system, specifically from primitive asteroids that formed from the accretion of dust and grains. They are the most common type of meteorite that falls to Earth, and contain a wide array of organic compounds, including nucleotides and amino acids, the so-called building blocks of life. In addition, a number of organic compounds that reside in these meteorites are also common on Earth, and are known to fuel microbial life by serving as a source of energy and nutrients for an array of microorganisms [Nixon et al 2012]. These meteorites have fallen to Earth and Mars for billions of years, since before the emergence and proliferation of life as we understand it. A significant quantity of these meteorites, and the organic matter contained within them, has therefore accumulated on Mars. In fact, owing to the thinner atmosphere of Mars, a larger quantity is expected to have accumulated there than on Earth, and with more of its organic content intact. It is a therefore a distinct possibility that these meteorites may play an important role in the emergence, or even persistence, of life on Mars, if such life has ever existed [Nixon et al 2013].

The search for life on Mars is very much an active pursuit. As we continue this search using robotic spacecraft, such as NASA’s Curiosity rover and the upcoming European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover, we seek to better define whether environments on Mars are habitable for life. But our understanding of habitability on Mars and beyond is defined by our knowledge of the limits of life here on Earth, such as the microbial lifeforms that can make a living on and under the Antarctic ice sheet (see this previous post), but also in terms of the chemical energy able to support life. The search for meteorites on Antarctica has an important role to play here, and long may the hunt continue.

 

References and further reading

Edited by Joe Cook and Clara Burgard


Sophie Nixon is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Geomicrobiology group at the University of Manchester. She completed her PhD in Astrobiology in 2014 at the University of Edinburgh, the subject of which was the feasibility for microbial iron reduction on Mars. Sophie’s research interests since joining the University of Manchester are varied, focussing mainly on the microbiological implications of anthropogenic engineering of the subsurface (e.g. shale gas extraction, nuclear waste disposal), as well as life in extreme environments and the feasibility for life beyond Earth. Contact: sophie.nixon@manchester.ac.uk