Newfoundland Landscape May Provide Clues to Life on Mars

Researcher Penny Morrill is investigating the unique landscape of Newfoundland’s Tablelands in Gros Morne National Park, which she believes may hold important insights into the possibility of life on Mars. The Tablelands, composed of orange peridotite rocks, resemble the Martian landscape and have a high concentration of toxic metals that prevent plant life from thriving. Morrill’s research, funded by the Canadian Space Agency, focuses on the presence of bacteria in the local stream that survive in the high pH currents resulting from a natural process called serpentinization. She believes that serpentinization also occurs on Mars and aims to understand what the Tablelands can reveal about the potential for past or current life on the Red Planet.

Serpentinization is a reaction between groundwater and peridotite rocks, creating extreme conditions for life. The high pH levels increase to levels comparable to bleach, making it a challenging environment for organisms. However, Morrill and her team have discovered bacteria in the Tablelands that can survive in these conditions by using carbon monoxide as an energy source, rather than carbon dioxide as most organisms do. This finding suggests the possibility of a unique ecosystem rooted in serpentinization.

Morrill’s research has led to the identification of white carbonate precipitate springs in the Tablelands, which indicate locations where serpentinization is occurring. By studying these springs, she hopes to find evidence of life or biomolecules that have been brought to the surface without the need for extensive drilling. She believes that similar ecosystems may exist on Mars, making these sites potential targets for future exploration.

Another researcher, Haley Sapers, is studying the potential connection between serpentinization and the presence of methane on Mars. Sapers focuses on methane seeps in extremely salty cold springs on Axel Heiberg Island in Nunavut, Canada, which serve as an analogue for the methane release that may be happening on Mars.

While the research is ongoing and the answers are yet to be discovered, the investigations in Newfoundland and Nunavut continue to captivate public interest and offer the possibility of unlocking secrets about the potential for life beyond Earth.

Sources: CBC News, NASA