Why Is This Weird Glacier Yellow? The Answer Could Help Find Alien Life

This is the best analog on Earth for Jupiter's moon, Europa.

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Sep 27 2016, 3:44pm

Image: Stephen Grasby/Natural Resources Canada

In the nineties, scientists in Canada's far North found something weird: A smelly yellow glacier that's one-of-a-kind. Nearly two decades later, they're still trying to figure out what's going on, and why it's such an unexpected colour. This glacier is also the closest environment we know of here on Earth to what scientists imagine Europa, Jupiter's icy moon, to be.

Europa is looking like a better and better place to go hunting for alien life. It has a global ocean covered in ice, and on Monday, NASA scientists presented evidence that water vapour plumes appear to be erupting from its surface. NASA is planning a mission to Europa in the 2020s, to help determine whether the icy moon is habitable.

In the meantime, scientists are studying this funky glacier in the Arctic.

Image: Stephen Grasby/Natural Resources Canada

"Why do you have this yellow glacier that's unique in the world?" Stephen Grasby, a Calgary-based geoscientist with Natural Resources Canada's Geological Survey of Canada, told me in an interview. "It's not entirely clear."

Grasby told me that he and colleagues first noticed it during a fly-by in a helicopter, in 1999. It couldn't be at a more remote location: It's in Borup Fiord Pass, a glacier-carved valley in northern Ellesmere Island in Nunavut. (The closest settlement is Eureka, an Environment Canada scientific station, Grasby said.)

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"We were doing work around the corner," and spotted the glacier from the helicopter, he explained. (Fellow researcher Benoit Beauchamp told the CBC it looked "not unlike someone having peed in the snow.") "As soon as we stopped, it's just overwhelming, the smell of hydrogen and sulfide gas," Grasby continued. "We could see bright yellow elemental sulfur covering the ice, and whiter precipitates, which are gypsum and calcite." They found a mineral called vaterite, which is rare in nature. "It is a very strange site," he said.

Grasby and others have gone back to try and figure out what's going on. Although they don't yet have a full explanation, it seems that a saline spring, which has a high concentration of hydrogen sulfide, is flowing from the glacier and depositing minerals on its surface.

Read More: How NASA's Going to Look For Life on Europa

What scientists learn in Nunavut will help others eventually figure out if there's life on Europa. The Jovian moon has a thick icy crust that covers its briny ocean, and it's famous for the dark striations and "chaos terrain" that leave crackle patterns on the ice. Those might indicate water seeping up from the surface, maybe depositing material—like sulfur—there.

A close-up view of the Conamara Chaos on Europa reveals jumbled blocks of ice that have refrozen to the surface. Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

So NASA has supported work to determine what can live on the Nunavut glacier, and to hone techniques for finding it. Turns out that it's teeming with life forms. "It's full of unusual microbial communities," Grasby said. "They're very different, very active, and very diverse."

The North remains understudied by southern scientists. "It just brings more focus to some of the amazing unknown parts of the Canadian Arctic," Grasby said. "Every year, we go and find something new."

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