ICEX2024 – Operation ICE WHALE: Astrobiology Studies on Beaufort Sea Ice

In this pilot project (funded through the NASA Exobiology program) our Astrobiology team (PI: Karen Junge, Polar Science Center, APL, UW; postdoc: Ardith Bravenec, UW Earth and Space Science, graduate student Kaitlin Harrison, UW oceanography, both associated with the UW Astrobiology program) will join with the Navy as it conducts its biennial Ice Exercise (ICEX2024 – Operation ICE WHALE) this March (2024, see Fox News video) on sea ice off the coast of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. We will study how microbes, temperature, and salt content affect the biological and freezing equilibrium signatures of this system with relevance to Enceladus and Europa while also training junior scientists in astrobiology-related field and laboratory work. Liquid water is essential to life as we know it. However, most planets and moons of astrobiological relevance have surface temperatures well below the freezing point of water. It has been suggested that sea ice bacteria would be capable of occupying ice-associated biological niches on Enceladus and Europa; and while the mechanisms of adaptation to cold stress have received considerable attention in the last few decades (e.g. Junge et al, 2019, Mudge et al., 2021), very little attention has been given to microbe-induced changes in the thermodynamics and kinetics of the bulk system they inhabit and alter. Here we are excited to camp on the ice at -40°C for a few days, where we will retrieve samples to study these processes in more detail. 

Stay tuned for pictures and notes from the field by the end of March! 

Our team: PI: Karen Junge, Polar Science Center, APL, UW; postdoc: Ardith Bravenec, UW Earth and Space Science, graduate student Kaitlin Harrison, UW oceanography), UW Astrobiology

Figures. Images of camp set up and helicopter deployed during previous ICEX operations (images courtesy of Theodore Gods, ICEX Program Manager).

The ICEX camp is located in the Beaufort Sea.

Everything freezes at -40°C – eyelashes, too! The sun is shining but not warming.

Beautiful northern lights at night at camp.

ARCTIC SUBMARINE LABORATORY (ASL) helicopter that brings people to and from the submarines.

We cored these holes into the ice to retrieve super cold and very salty brines.

Image of a multi year ice core. Multi year ice is becoming rare in the Arctic. We are lucky to have the opportunity to sample it!

Ardith proudly shows off her first ice core!

We got a beautiful ice core! Left to right: Ardith Bravenec, Karen Junge (PI) , Kaitlin Harrison)

Brine sampling using an autoclaved turkey baster.                    

UW Oceanography Graduate student Kaitlin Harrison, and UW Earth and Space Sciences post doc Ardith Bravenec cleaning the ice corer in the only sink on camp.

The ICEX2024 team embarked deep in the Beaufort Sea on a nuclear submarine in -45° weather.

Check out some footage in this reel