Antarctica as a Time Machine: Our Portal to Snowball Earth and Faraway Worlds


Tags: Climate and Bioscience, SETI Talks, Outreach

Time: Wednesday, Jan 16, 2019

Location: SRI International Headquarters, 333 Ravenswood Ave., Menlo Park, CA 94025

SETI Talks are presented by the SETI Institute and SRI International.

Antarctica is a land of extremes. It is the southernmost, coldest, and driest continent. Governed by international treaty, Antarctica has no cities or towns, but is visited by thousands of people each year, including scientists. Geophysicists, biologists, and planetary astronomers gather in Antarctica to study its unique and fragile ecosystem, collect climate data from our planet’s past, and test robotic equipment that could one day explore our Solar System to search for life beyond Earth.

This month, we invited three scientists whose work is directly related to Antarctica to discuss the potential of this “continent for science”. Peter Roopnarine, Curator of Geology, Department of Invertebrate Zoology & Geology, Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability,
California Academy of Sciences,  has studied ecosystems in extreme environments and how a planet emerges from a snowball to become a diverse biosphere. Tyler Mackey, Postdoctoral Fellow at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, focuses his research on habitats of the cryosphere and has dived in the lakes of the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica to study records of microbial activity. Ariel Waldman, citizen scientist and artist, just recently came back from an expedition in Antarctica, where she filmed microbes living within glaciers, under the sea ice, and in subglacial ponds. While there, she also shadowed various research teams, including a mission testing an autonomous underwater vehicle.

Beyond understanding the past life of our planet, Antarctica is a great platform to study life in an extreme environment. This month’s speakers are explorers who travel to the bottom of Earth to search for and characterize life with instruments that could one day explore Europa’s ocean. They’ll share their thoughts on Earth’s cryogenic past, when the surface was entirely or partially frozen, and discuss how their work in Antarctica is related to understanding its impact on the expansion of complex multicellular life.

Tyler at Lake Fryxell

Tyler Mackey works in modern microbial ecosystems and their ancient sedimentary record to explore the history of life on Earth. His research combines field observations with detailed sedimentary and geochemical analyses to assess records of early animal and microbial activity preserved in carbonates. Current research projects focus on habitats of the cryosphere, including both modern polar settings and ancient periods when cold conditions could have had significant impacts on evolutionary pressures. He has had five Antarctic field seasons between 2010 and 2015 and is currently an Agouron Postdoctoral Fellow at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences.

Peter Roopnarine

Peter Roopnarine is the Curator of Geology, Department of Invertebrate Zoology & Geology, Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability,
California Academy of Sciences. He has degrees in Biology (B.Sc.), Oceanography (M.S.), and Geology (Ph.D.). His current research focuses on major changes of the geobiosphere, including mass extinctions, recovery from mass extinctions, and other transitions in the history of life. His work has been supported by several major programs of the National Science Foundation, including Collaborations in Mathematics and Geosciences, Earth Life Transitions, and, most recently, Integrated Earth Systems. He has a strong interest in current global change biology and how we can further develop our understanding of Earth's past ecosystems to better forecast our future. He has conducted fieldwork in diverse places, including neotropical rain forests, desert springs in Mexico, the Alaskan Arctic, and mountains in Hubei, China.

Ariel Waldman

Ariel Waldman sits on the council for NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts, a program that nurtures radical, science-fiction-inspired ideas that could transform future space missions. She is the co-author of a congressionally-requested National Academy of Sciences report on the future of human spaceflight and the author of the book What’s It Like in Space?: Stories from Astronauts Who’ve Been There. Ariel is the global director of Science Hack Day, a grassroots endeavor to prototype things with science that is now in 30 countries. In 2013, Ariel was honored by the White House for being a Champion of Change in citizen science. In 2018, she led a five-week expedition to Antarctica to explore the microbial life beneath the ice.

SETI Talks are held at the SRI Conference Center at 333 Ravenswood Avenue. Please enter from Middlefield Road and follow the signs.

Click here to register.

Planning is underway for upcoming SETI Talks, but we have some dates you might want hold:

February 13, 2019: The Next NASA Space Telescopes
March 13, 2019: New Horizons and Ultima Thule
April 17, 2019: The Search for Life on Exoplanets