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The Antarctic, an astrobiology development model for the Nevado del Ruiz

Just a few places in the world evoke extraterrestrial environments, which only decades ago would be part of our imagination but thanks to space exploration, today are more familiar to human beings. The Antarctic also called the “white continent,” is one of the unique landscapes that are similar to planets such as Mars, turning into an essential scenario to carry out scientific research in the fields of planetary geology and astrobiology.


Since 2015, the UNal Planetary Science and Astrobiology Group (GCPA, for its Spanish acronym), along with the Antarctic Colombian Program (PAC, for its Spanish acronym) and the Colombian Ocean Commission (CCO, for its Spanish acronym), has strengthened its collaboration ties to carry out scientific projects to allow using the Antarctic as a planetary analog.


The VIII Colombian Expedition to the Antarctic has established a solid work route to expedite both geological cartography as well as the microbiological sampling of the location of astrobiological interest in the white continent.


The research project also includes the assessment of other places of ample geological wealth as the Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Colombia, similar to Deception Island, a small volcanic island located approximately at 62° latitude south and place of research for the Colombian Expedition. 


Both places have a high potential for being considered as land analogs, as in some time in their geological history, as rocky bodies of the solar system –as Mars and the Moon– also had continued volcanic activity. Furthermore, there are mineralogic and geochemical coincidences that allow establishing comparisons between both volcanos, and some volcanic regions of the red planet.


Read more: Monitoring Antarctica, the first Colombian geophysics station engineered and built by UNal


From Ushuaia to Deception Island


One of the compulsory stops –at least for those that go from South America to the Antarctic is in Ushuaia, “the city of the end of the world.” It is a city of almost 85,000 inhabitants surrounded by snow-capped mountains, even in summer, that keep hundreds of stories of glaciers, and natural parks of extreme beauty.


The enchantment of Ushuaia is offsetting to the landscape that connects the world to the Antarctic: The Drake Sea, considered as one of the most turbulent, as three, Pacific, Atlantic, and the Antarctic oceans converge at this location, being one of the most hostile and difficult areas to navigate in the world.


This week the Spanish vessel Hespérides departed from Ushuaia with more than 40 researchers towards the Antarctic. The white continent is the place where many scientists would like to visit, but unfortunately, due to the great technical difficulties, just a few can carry out.


Read: Colombia searches for signals of climate change in Antarctica (in Spanish)


In the expedition to the Antarctic, international cooperation, and the diplomatic and logistic roles of the PAC and CCO have been essential. UNal has participants including students María Angélica Leal, a Biology Ph.D. candidate and David Tovar, a Geosciences Ph.D. candidate, besides professors   Jimena Sánchez Nieves (Department of Biology), Nadejda Tchegliakova (Department of Geosciences), and Argenis Bonilla (Department of Biology), with the international collaboration of Universidad de Alcalá professor and Spanish Polar Committee scientist Miguel Ángel de Pablo Hernández.


Thanks to the collaboration it was possible to reach the Gabriel de Castilla Antarctic station, the base station for the Colombian scientists for a month. The scientific and educational outreach carried out by the Association of Initial Polar Career Scientists (APECS Colombia) has greatly contributed to showing the importance of scientific research in the Antarctic.


When the expedition ends, the vessel will depart from Deception Island towards Punta Arenas, in Chile, and then return to Colombia, where they will analyze the collected rock and soil samples. Although the 2021-2022 expedition is over, the research project is long-term and will continue to contribute to the PAC for several years more.

Antarctica is much more than ice


The wealth and geologic, biologic, climate, and oceanographic variety, among others, allows scientists to have a wide range of opportunities for scientific exploration in the Antarctic.


“Most projects include scientists that work in different knowledge areas and here is where there is a much more profound awareness over the importance of having an ample vision and knowledge of several topics to allow facing a scientific issue. The fogy idea of focusing on just one matter and not exit the comfort zone is relegated to when one faces the real world,” he said.


One of the greatest attractions of the white continent is the hidden wealth related to very low- temperature extremophile microorganisms, also known in the astrobiology world as psychrophiles.


The scientific interest in researching psychrophiles lies in that given the conditions of the Antarctic, where there is a permanent layer of ice and the ground is always frozen (permafrost), these microorganisms can survive. These characteristics have also been reported in planets such as Mars, so they are an excellent reference for looking for life beyond Earth in inhospitable locations in the solar system.


Lastly, as part of the research program, they also researched endolithic organisms, which are organisms that feed on rock-forming minerals. These microorganisms also are of high astrobiological interest, as they could eventually be present in Mars rocks. This geo-microbiological study in volcanic rocks of the Antarctic is not only innovative but also attractive for the possible results that could be obtained.

Consejo Editorial