The Current

Climate change is threatening Earth's best place to study Mars

Meet geologist Joe Levy, who's working on a reliable way to locate Martian water in the form of underground ice deposits. He spends months at a time working in the most Mars-like environment he can find on Earth — the Dry Valleys Antarctica.
'The Dry Valleys of Antarctica are about as close as you can get to Mars without a spaceship," says geologist Joe Levy. ( Logan Schmidt)

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Joe Levy has been travelling to Antarctica regularly for 12 years now. The University of Texas geologist has spent months at a time sleeping in a tent in one of the most barren, isolated landscapes on Earth. And he does it all in the name of science. 

"The Dry Valleys of Antarctica are about as close as you can get to Mars without a spaceship," Joe Levy tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. 

But all that is coming under threat because of the Earth's warming climate.

In the warmer parts of the Dry Valleys, Levy says the rate of melting is "unprecedented in the last 11,000 years."

Garwood Valley where the melting of buried ice is causing the overlying sands (remnants of an ancient lake delta) to be washed away. (Jim O’Connor)

The drier, colder inland areas are showing slower rates of change for now, but it's clear to scientists that their time to study the region is finite.

"It's a race against time to study those environments before they get too wet," says Levy.

With their bone-dry climate and frigid temperatures, the Dry Valleys provide a close analogue to the Martian climate, making it the best place in the world to study how astronauts might survive on a future mission to the red planet. 

Levy's research focuses on finding ways to identify underground ice formations that might serve as a water source to future Martian settlers.

"On Mars, the most important resource is probably going to be water," he says.

Joey Levy at Alph Lake near the Ross Sea Coast in the McMurdo Dry Valleys looking at thermokarst depressions — giant melt out features as debris-covered ice melts. (Logan Schmidt)

As the Antarctic summers grow warmer, the seasonal thaws get deeper into the ground and more ice melts. All this creates a feedback loop that accelerates the change. That means ice deposits that appear stable may in fact be at risk.  

Researchers also value the area for its inability to support life — which could change with rising temperatures, Levy says.

"There's simply no microbial activity there. That's a really special resource on Earth," he says. "Our planet is otherwise teaming with life, so if we want to understand the limits of life on somewhere like Mars ... we need to go to those places before they get warmer and wetter and become colonized."

This segment was produced by The Current's Julian Uzielli.