Two Calgarians are among a multinational expedition trying to answer age-old questions about the universe and the origins of life.
In June, cave experts Christian Stenner and Kathleen Graham joined a group of scientists and experts to explore uncharted territory in the world’s fastest-growing glacial cave system.
“When you get a phone call that asks if you want to take a helicopter into an active volcano and map out glacier caves, the answer is yes,” Graham joked.
The active volcano is Mount St. Helens in Washington.
It erupted in 1980, killing 57 people, making it the deadliest volcanic blast in U.S. history.
Scientists have been conducting tests and researching the microbes found deep within the caves.
“You have to imagine the volcano exploded over 30 years ago. That would have killed off everything that could possibly live there,” Stenner said. “Now it’s over 30 years later and we’ve found microbes living in the soil next to volcanic steam vents in this totally dark environment.
“It speaks to the origins of life, not only on Earth, but where they should look on other planets when they actually go on other missions there.”
And to search for life on other planets, a robot designed by NASA was tested inside the caves.
“NASA has an extreme environment robotics group that’s developing technologies that are going to help explore some of these different icy bodies of the solar system,” Stenner explained.
“One of the robots was this ice worm, so we had to bring it into the cave system to test out how it would work climbing a wall of ice.”
The expedition lasted more than a week; five of those days were spent deep in Mount St. Helens, exploring the caves.
“It’s surreal. The scallops on the wall of the ice are really beautiful,” Graham said. “The floor is [made up of] very big rocks and then the really surreal part is that it’s really, really steamy in there. It’s like someone just poured a bunch of water on the sauna.”
While the caves hold their own unique beauty, Graham admits the conditions can be gruelling.
“You’re soaking wet and sitting in a zero- or two-degree environment and sometimes your handheld electronic device won’t work. You just have to have a sense of humour about it.”
The need for humour in those extreme conditions was echoed by Stenner.
“One of the jokes was that the robot would become self-aware and this would become a horror movie and it would start killing everyone – but that didn’t happen,” Stenner laughed.
Stenner and Graham mapped a portion of the caves and hope one day the research completed there will lead to scientific breakthroughs.
“You’re collecting a lot of data, very slow monotonous work, but it’s with this great, positive outlook that we hope we achieve something really cool,” Graham said.
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