Antarctica’s Ross Island is a landmass formed by four volcanoes located in the Ross Sea. Naturally, it is an amazing area for researchers to explore. And that’s exactly what a few scientists did throughout the island’s subterranean caves.
It was a dangerous mission, considering that the caves lie very close to an active volcano. For the researchers, though, their dangerous exploration was worth every minute. After collecting a few samples, they made a discovery that will change everything we think we know about the frozen continent.
Ross Island Is A Frozen Landform
Ross Island in Antarctica lies off the coast of Victoria Land and is under the jurisdiction of New Zealand. Of course, the icy continent is a bit chillier than that of New Zealand. On the volcano-formed island, temperatures tend to average out at around one degree Fahrenheit!
Needless to say, many people believe that no life form would be able to survive in those conditions for very long. Nor would anyone want to risk life or limb trying to settle on the island.
The Island Has An Active Volcano
The Antarctic island is covered in sheets of ice, making it nearly impossible for animals, or even plants and fauna, to thrive. Even so, there are some interesting aspects to the frozen landscape.
Ross Island is actually home to an active volcano, Mount Erebus. It is because of this volcano’s eruptions that elaborate networks of caves have formed under the island. And it is these caves that brought researchers to this freezing part of the world.
The Name ‘Ross Island’ Is A Bit Misleading
The island is home to four volcanoes, including Erebus. But, ironically, a lot of people think the name Ross Island is a bit misleading. See, when you look at the island on a map, the land looks as though it connects to the main continent of Antarctica.
This is because a massive slab of ice technically connects the island to the mainland, making it look as though it is part of the landscape.
Sir James Clark Ross Thought The Island Was An Offshoot
One giant landmass is exactly what the founder of Ross Island thought when he first laid eyes on it in 1841. Sir James Clark Ross believed the island to be an icy offshoot connected to the mainland of Antarctica.
For years, no one knew the land was an island. It wasn’t until the 20th century when explorers from the British Discovery Expedition ventured to the site that the record was finally corrected.
The Island Used To Be A Campground For Pioneers
After Sir James Clark Ross made the discovery, the island was used as a campground for other pioneers who were interested in the mysterious Arctic landscape. These people were among the first to walk across the island’s frozen grounds.
Interestingly, huts were constructed on the island during two separate, and very famous, excursions, one by Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton and the other Robert Falcon Scott. The structures are actually still standing and are utilized to this day.
Ross Island Is Home To Two Research Facilities
Since the huts were constructed, more man-made buildings have been added to the frozen landscape of Ross Island. Two structures, in particular, have materialized as huge research facilities.
The two buildings are the United States’ McMurdo Station and New Zealand’s Scott Base. Out of the two, McMurdo Station is the bigger operation. The facility can host up to 1,200 people, but that’s not what makes it impressive.
Ross Island Is Very Small
Keep in mind that there are two huge research facilities on Ross Island, but the land itself isn’t big. The icy landscape covers around 950 square miles, all of it frozen. Even so, the land housing the United States’ research facility around McMurdo Sound is above sea level.
The highest elevated peak on any of Antarctica’s surrounding islands is situated here on this icy, desolate piece of land, the southernmost island reachable by sea.
The Island Is Home To Many Tall Peaks
That’s saying something, considering Ross island isn’t shy of high peaks. Beeby Peak stands around 4,600 feet above sea level, while the volcano Mount Bird rises a whopping 5,800 feet high.
Amazingly, those two points are nothing compared to the aptly-named Mount Terror, which rises around 10,600 feet from the ground. Even so, Mount Erebus beats them all. The active volcano is a total of 12,448 feet tall. It’s truly a wonder how lava from the volcano has created the elaborate sea caves.
Mount Erebus Erupts For Years On End
Even though it is an active volcano, Mount Erebus’ eruptions are quite weak. The volcano has mild lava spurts, called ‘Strombolian blasts.’ And while other volcano blasts originate from deep within the core, Mount Erebus also has a lava lake that this happens to.
While that doesn’t sound too scary, the amazing thing about Mount Erebus is that when it last erupted in 1972, it went on for 20 years, according to Oregon State University’s Volcano World website.
Mount Erebus’ Eruptions Made Toasty Caves
These long eruptions led Mount Erebus to form elaborate caves underneath its surface. The most amazing thing about these caverns is unique to Antarctica. Instead of being ice cold like the rest of the land, these caves are almost toasty. Well, toasty compared to the chilly Antarctic climate!
The caves were so unique and interesting that it was almost impossible for explorers and researchers to stay away. In 2016, Aaron Curtis set out on an exploration of the caves.
Aaron Curtis And A Team Of Scientists Set Out To Learn More
In December of 2016, a representative from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory, Aaron Curtis, took on the exploration of Mount Erebus’ caves. He was accompanied by other scientific minds curious about the volcano.
The goal was to learn more about the volcano as a whole, but also about the make-up of the gases being expelled by Mount Erebus. They were all eager to get going!
Aaron Curtis Is Part Of A Robotics Group
A bit of background on Aaron Curtis: he’s part of the Extreme Environments Robotics Group, a division of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Part of being a member is testing their new technology on rough landscapes.
The Group’s entire goal is to construct robots that can function within harsh elements and over challenging land. So, this exploration of Mount Erebus’ caves was the perfect opportunity to utilize one of their robots.
Robotics Experts Were Eager To Test The Technology
During a 2017 interview with Astrobiology Magazine, Aaron Parness, a robotics expert, explained why it was important to test the machines in such a rough environment. He said, “Field testing shows you things that are hard to learn in the laboratory.”
“We jump on those opportunities. Even if the prototype isn’t ready to work perfectly, it doesn’t mean it isn’t ready to teach us lessons on how to make the next iteration better,” he said.
Curtis Used Multiple Robots
Curtis was actually lucky enough to test out a few new technologies during his Mount Erebus excursion. One such technology was the Ice Screw End Effector (ISEE), a type of makeshift drill. This drill was used as a tool to assist the Limbed Excursion Mechanical Utility Robot, aka the LEMUR.
The ISEE wasn’t only able to help the LEMUR stick to the frozen walls of the caves, but it also allowed the other machine to move around the terrain while it collected specimens from the ice.
It Was Important To Test The ISEE On Different Terrains
It was very important for the team to test the ISEE in various conditions as well. This is because ice can vary in terms of consistency. While one slab of ice is robust, another can be a very fragile consistency that’s prone to breaking when the drill does its job.
Curtis explained these differences in Astrobiology Magazine, saying, “The differences involved [in the ice] can be like trying to climb a marshmallow versus a light metal.”
They Also Used A Robot Called The PUFFER
Curtis and his team also utilized a robot called the PUFFER. Now, this machine was important for the expedition because it was used to investigate landscapes. And it was nice for the team because of its tiny size that was easy to store.
Ironically, the machine was never used on icy terrain until Curtis and his team took it out for a test run. But more robots helped Curtis during his Antarctic expedition.
One Robot Drew Up 3D Maps
Another robot that the team brought down to Antarctica to help with the exploration of the caves was a light-finding device. Now, this robot was able to draw up three-dimensional diagrams of the surrounding area.
This helped the team get the lay of the land, helping them analyze the caves without actually going into the frozen caverns. The only downside to the technology is that it is very difficult to plot out a 3D map of frozen landscapes.
The Maps Were Difficult To Read Because Of The Ice
Curtis has explained that it’s difficult to get a clear 3D map of an icy landscape. The reason is that ice is so reflective. Because of the reflections, it is hard for the robot to accurately plot out a map, as it interferes with its reading of visual information.
During an interview with Astrobiology Magazine, Curtis said, “Ice sparkles and the sparkly crystals look different from each angle. It’s like a hall of mirrors.”
Mount Erebus’ Climate Is Similar To One Of Jupiter’s Moons
Although the 3D maps were a bit hard to read, Curtis believed they were worth preserving. It seemed as though the caves under Mount Erebus were extraordinary for another reason, and not just from the “toasty” climate.
As it turns out, the caves have similar conditions to that of other parts of the galaxy, particularly Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter. There’s a theory that there is underground water on Jupiter, meaning there could potentially be forms of life on the planet.
The Climate Was Unlike Anything They’d Seen Before
With the potential of life, you can imagine that Europa is of very great interest to the scientific community. And while the climate of the moon is unlike anything found on Earth, Curtis and his team believed some of the properties were the same as the caves underneath Mount Erebus.
During an interview with Astrobiology Magazine, Curtis said, “We think some features of these caves are similar to what you might see on a moon like Europa.”
They Found So-Called ‘Extremophiles’
If there is life on the moon Europa, Curtis and his team came to the conclusion that there must be something living underneath Mount Erebus, due to their similar climates. That’s why the study of the volcano is so important.
According to Curtis, there is evidence to suggest so-called ‘extremophiles’ living in the caves underneath Mount Erebus. And it was up to Curtis and his team to find signs of life and extract the specimens.
The Theory Of Life Made Sense With The 77-Degree Climate
The theory wasn’t out of left field, either. The caves are significantly warmer than the rest of Ross Island, reaching up to 77 degrees Fahrenheit compared to the rest of Antarctica’s solid one degree.
And in certain parts of the caves, limited amounts of light are able to penetrate through the ice. So, theoretically, some form of life could potentially exist in the caves. It’s just a matter of finding out what!
One Researcher Said You Could Wear A T-Shirt In The Caves
One researcher involved in the study of the caves, Dr. Ceridwen Fraser, discussed the cave conditions with the BBC, saying, “You could wear a T-shirt in there and be pretty comfortable. There’s light near the cave mouths, and light filters deeper into some caves where the overlying ice is thin.”
In fact, Dr. Fraser was one of the team members that went ahead and took soil samples from the caves, testing them for signs of life.
Their Findings Concluded Something Extraordinary
During the extraction of soil from the caves under Mount Erebus, Dr. Fraser and her team stumbled upon some interesting findings. After they got the samples back to their makeshift lab, they were able to analyze the specimens.
Their findings concluded that the samples had DNA from eukaryotes. Eukaryotes are organisms, including various forms of flora, fauna, and even algae. They found life in the caves! It was a huge breakthrough.
The DNA Samples Were Completely New
The thing is, the DNA they found in the caverns wasn’t unlike other specimens they’d found in other parts of the continent. But it was interesting; the genetic material didn’t correspond with any known plant or animal on the planet.
The team then concluded that the samples they had come across were entirely new. It is possible that the caves underneath Mount Erebus were home to organisms never before studied.
Dr. Fraser Was Beyond Excited With The Findings
Dr. Fraser was very enthusiastic about their breakthrough. During an interview with the BBC, the bio-geographer said, “The results from this study give us a tantalizing glimpse of what might live beneath the ice in Antarctica. There might even be a new species of animals and plants.”
But not everyone was as eager to accept the results as conclusive. Some people on the research team thought they needed to gather more samples before moving forward.
Some Didn’t Want To Jump To Conclusions
One such person on the research team picking apart Mount Erebus was Professor Laurie Connell. The professor wasn’t like the doctor; she wanted more firm evidence before jumping to any conclusions.
Professor Connell told the BBC, “The next steps will be to take a closer look at the caves and search for living organisms. If they exist, it opens the door to an exciting new world.” She was eager to get back out into the field and explore.
Researchers Believe There Are More Caverns To Be Explored
Mount Erebus on Ross Island is most likely not the only active volcano in the region. There are most likely others that have formed underground caves throughout the years.
While a lot of the caverns are most likely unreachable for humans, Curtis and his team have proven that robots are just as useful in mapping and analyzing the hard terrain. After all, it didn’t matter who went into the caves. It was just a matter of getting samples so they could learn more.
One Doctor Isn’t Sure About Further Exploration
There are some who are a bit hesitant to dig deeper into lifeforms on Antarctica. In a 2017 press release from the Australian National University, Dr. Charles Lee voiced his concerns about looking for life around the icy continent.
The doctor said, “We don’t yet know just how many cave systems exist around Antarctica’s volcanoes or how interconnected these subglacial environments might be. They’re really difficult to identify, get to, and explore.”
Their Research Is Important For Understanding The Cave’s Biology
Regardless of others’ opinions, the research conducted by Lee, Connell, Fraser, and their fellow colleague Craig Cary, is very important in understanding what lies underneath Antarctica.
In their research paper, the team said, “To date, biological studies of the cave systems in Antarctica have been limited to assessments of fungal and microbiological diversity. Our results highlight the importance of investigating these cave systems in greater detail – despite the field challenges associated with such an endeavor – to confirm the presence of living macrobiota.”