MARS

Geologic history

It’s a fitting acronym for the small camp I’ve spent my season in. Canadian Space Agency projects run through the McGill Arctic Research Station use Axel Heiberg as a Mars analogue site for research on polar desert landscapes. The idea is that the climatic conditions and geological history of this area of the Arctic (as well as those of the Dry Valleys) share many similarities to the conditions on Mars, and by examining these processes on Earth we can then apply what we learn to our friendly red neighbor.

A dark and stormy night

These are just on the walls to try and make us look cool.

Being trapped here comes with a relative level of comfort you wouldn’t expect given our location. The kitchen hut is a half-century old structure that feels like you’re cooking in a museum’s storeroom. The view from the outhouse (barrel) looks out across a massive glacier with the sounds of the floodplain in the distance. As if these weren’t perks enough, the central work/sleeping hut is about as cushy as any outdoorsman (or woman) would want. The back half of the building is the sleeping quarters with military style bunks and all sorts of expedition gear lining the walls: ice axes, rescue rope, flares, and the odd radio or two left over from 1960.

The social hub.

The front half of the building serves as the main work center and social area of the camp. Our communication gear is perched in the corner, surrounded by the lab and computer space needed for processing scientific samples and checking facebook. Miscellaneous parts line the walls of the room and a central Preway heater runs on diesel to heat the building. During the lonely polar storms there’s an emergency library stocked with the latest Nora Roberts books and the complete Twilight series to keep the spirits up.

The expedition's library.

It’s interesting to think that someplace so remote is set to become a second home. In a mix of design and good fortune I’ll be returning to this spot in the North several times over the next four or five years. Beginning this coming January I’ll be starting graduate school to look at how the changing climate influences ice and in turn the sensitive biological ecosystems that surround it. The unjustly lucky aspect of this work is that Axel is not the only potential research site, but much of the Canadian Arctic and even the Antarctic.

The long journey forward

Regardless of where the research takes place I’m set to return to Axel to continue working on the station, even during different times of the year. The prospect of coming back over several years, watching seasons change, living with the potential terror of being eaten by a bear – these are things that allow someone to become intimately familiar with an environment on a personal level. As I finish my first season in the North there is no worry about my ability to return or an emotional feeling of conclusion – only the excitement that for one reason or another, at some time in the near future, I’ll be back. At this moment there is potential for everything, and that is something to look forward to.


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2 thoughts on “MARS

  1. You said last year that Antarctica had very rigorous measures to protect the environment. Are there things more lax in the Arctic?

    • From my experience things are much more lax in the Arctic. This is for several reasons: there’s the International Antarctic treaty which protects the continent from (most) exploitation and even within this the Dry Valleys are a specially protected scientific area subject to the most restrictive environmental measures in the world. The Arctic on the other hand belongs to several different countries (Canada, Russia, Norway, etc) that each impose their own set of rules. Even within Canada these rules vary depending on whether you’re on Inuit land, designated National Park, or other.

      While I hope there are areas of the Arctic subject to similar rules as the Dry Valleys, I have not yet come across them in my limited exposure.

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