Keith Cowing's Devon Island Journal 7 July 2003: Part 2: Getting Out of Base Camp


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NASA HMP-2003/SpaceRef


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Our ATV caravan during a traverse into Haughton Crater.
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Quimmiq taking a swim in Lake Trinity inside Haughton Crater after running along with us of 5 km
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Ejecta block which was thrown out of - and then fell back into - Haughton Crater 23 million years ago
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Keith standing next to an ejecta block inside Haughton Crater
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HMP ATV's - including one now dubbed "Ron Jon's"

After lunch five of us set off on ATVs for a short traverse from base camp into nearby Haughton Crater. Leading the way was Gordon "Oz" Osinski. Following Oz (in sequence) were: Matt Silver, myself, Adrien Bisset, and Pascal Lee. Oz and Pascal carried radios, Pascal had the shotgun. Along for the trip (and running along side our ATV caravan) was Quimmiq our polar bear guard dog. The main purpose of the trip was for Pascal and Oz (both geologists) to scout out access routes (to be used later this summer) to examine locations within the crater where lakebed sediments are exposed and readily accessible.

Haughton Crater was formed 23 million years ago when an object around 1 km in diameter hit the Earth at great speed. It is thought that a lake existed in side the resulting crater shortly after impact and that it may have lasted for several hundred thousand years. It is the presence of this large impact crater, here, currently amidst a polar desert that makes this place so unique: nothing like it has been found anywhere else on Earth.

Each of us had our own ATV. The terrain still has a lot of snow and ice on it. Indeed, the path we had to take took us down a number of streams gushing with snow melt - one of which had walls of snow several meters high on either side.

If you have never driven an ATV, they are a hybrid between a snowmobile, motorcycle, and motor scooter. They are rather versatile and can allow you to cover a lot of difficult terrain in a very short period of time. They are also small enough so that you can get through paces that larger vehicles would have to avoid. They can be hazardous vehicles too operate. As such, we all wear helmets and observe a number of safety rules when using them.

Having made a number of traverses on one of these vehicles, I have to agree with those who see the utility of something like an ATV on Mars. Its vastly better than walking - and far more capable of getting you almost anywhere than a large rover. This is not to negate, by any means the utility of walking and using large rovers. Rather, ATVs provide a useful intermediary capability between these two extremes.

After 20 minutes or so we arrived at a landmark know as 'the ejecta block'. To be certain there are others, but this one particular ejecta block is set in a rather scenic locale and is oriented such that you can easily envision the event that threw it here -and the raw ferocity of that impact.

Upon close inspection you can see that the rock is different in composition than the rocky material around it. When the large impactor hit Earth and formed Haughton create an immense amount of energy was suddenly injected into the surrounding ground. A lot of material was thrown up from the surface. While smaller pieces of rock landed some distance away, larger blocks fell much closer to the site of impact.

In this case, a large piece of dolomite (limestone) was excavated by the blast. One other ejecta block, about twice the size of this one, can be seen up along the rim of the crater. Because of the stress of its ejection - and subsequent landing - large cracks formed within this large block of rock. Within these cracks a variety of arctic life forms became established.

We were originally planning to go further into the crater, but the prospect of deep mud led to an alteration in our plan. As we returned to base camp we continued to adhere to one of the rules of traverses on Devon Island: minimize impact to terrain wherever possible. The easiest way to do this is to follow the person ahead of you as closely (i.e. in their tracks) as possible. This way the damage is focused on one area - not spread out over a broader expanse. Every attempt is made for all of us to stick to established "roads" whenever possible. Indeed, there are some older ATV roads that have been abandoned and are marked as such.

I am not sure what practice would be followed on Mars as far as environmental protection is concerned. Here on Earth, tracks made in arctic terrain can persist for years - even decades. Given the nature of ecosystems here - and the larger environmental context within which these ecosystems reside - this can have a profound impact that takes a long time to erase. The temptation on Mars, by some, will probably be along the lines of "hey, its a big planet - there's plenty of untouched ground to last for centuries". This is, of course, the same sort of shortsighted attitude many held here on Earth until we discovered what effect human activity could have on Earth's environment.

Of course, in a narrow sense, what I am getting at is whether or not here is an ecosystem on Mars in the first place - one that we need to worry about disrupting. Given the habits of those I have seen in action here on Devon Island - especially the biologists (of which I am one), as well as what I know to be the case in places such as Antarctica, I suspect that the default instinct on Mars will be to leave locations alone unless there is a good reason to start trampling on them. The question of whether there is life on Mars may take a while to answer. The question of determining whether there is NOT presently life on (or within) Mars may take much longer.

Even if there is not an ecosystem on Mars to be trampled, there is a environmental record we'd do well to tread lightly upon for some time to come. Examples of how to do just that are in force on Devon Island.


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