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Effects of extreme cold and aridity on soils and habitability: McMurdo Dry Valleys as an analogue for the Mars Phoenix landing site

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 January 2012

L.K. Tamppari*
Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech, 4800 Oak Grove Drive, Pasadena, CA 91109, USA
R.M. Anderson
Tufts University, Medford, MA, USA
P.D. Archer JR
NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX, USA
S. Douglas
Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech, 4800 Oak Grove Drive, Pasadena, CA 91109, USA
S.P. Kounaves
Tufts University, Medford, MA, USA
C.P. Mckay
NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA, USA
D.W. Ming
NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX, USA
Q. Moore
Tufts University, Medford, MA, USA
J.E. Quinn
Jacobs Engineering, ESCG/NASA, Houston, TX, USA
P.H. Smith
University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA
S. Stroble
Tufts University, Medford, MA, USA
A.P. Zent
NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA, USA


The McMurdo Dry Valleys are among the driest, coldest environments on Earth and are excellent analogues for the Martian northern plains. In preparation for the 2008 Phoenix Mars mission, we conducted an interdisciplinary investigation comparing the biological, mineralogical, chemical, and physical properties of wetter lower Taylor Valley (TV) soils to colder, drier University Valley (UV) soils. Our analyses were performed for each horizon from the surface to the ice table. In TV, clay-sized particle distribution and less abundant soluble salts both suggested vertical and possible horizontal transport by water, and microbial biomass was higher. Alteration of mica to short-order phyllosilicates suggested aqueous weathering. In UV, salts, clay-sized materials, and biomass were more abundant near the surface, suggesting minimal downward translocation by water. The presence of microorganisms in each horizon was established for the first time in an ultraxerous zone. Higher biomass numbers were seen near the surface and ice table, perhaps representing locally more clement environments. Currently, water activity is too low to support metabolism at the Phoenix site, but obliquity changes may produce higher temperatures and sufficient water activity to permit microbial growth, if the populations could survive long dormancy periods (∼106 years).

Biological Sciences
Copyright © Antarctic Science Ltd 2012

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