The Lunar and Planetary Institute,
NASA Office of Space Science Broker/Facilitators
NASA Ames Research Center Astrobiology Team
NASA Space Grant Consortia.
Yellowstone is a land of extremes hot springs rich in acid and
sulfur, microbe that thrive in those poisonous waters, geysers, recent volcanos,
and the most ancient rocks in the U.S. What can these extremeties tell us
about the history of life Earth? What clues can they provide about the history
of other solar system bodies and the possibility of life on these other worlds?
And how can we take these extreme ideas back to the classroom?
The Extremeties teacher training workshop, late July and early August, 2002,
brought classroom teachers and scientists to Yellowstone National Park and Montana
State University to explore astrobiology and geology. The workshop was crafted to provide
an integrated study of geology and 'geobiology' from a planetary perspective, extending from
field studies through lab and classroom exercises, to discussions of life in the universe.
A unique aspect of this workshop was integration of geology, field biology, laboratory biology,
and remote sensing into a coherent set of experiences. After examining the geological origins of
selected hot springs, we sampled their microbial communities (with permission from the Park!),
and returned the samples to MSU for microscopic examination and measurment of their reflectance
After arriving in Bozeman, MT, on July 25, we departed for Yellowstone the next morning, and drove
via Red Lodge and the Beartooth mountain range. There, in a showstorm, we examined some of the most
ancient rocks in the USA quartzites and ironstones that formed ~ 2.5 billion years ago. The
quartzite, like modern-day beach sand, clearly indicates the presence of liquid water in abundance
and extensive erosion. The ironstones probably required life to form, similar to iron-rich microbial
sediments found today.
The Yellowstone experience began early next morning. After a tour of Grand Prismatic Spring (led
by Tori Hoehler of NASA Ames), we met David Ward (of Montana State U.) at the Great Fountain Geyser,
examined the Octopus Spring nearby, and collected
samples for later work. We then
examined and collected from the acid microbial mats at
Nymph Lake, stopped at Roaring Mountain,
and proceeded to Mammoth Springs. There, we examined and collected samples from two of its sulfurous
springs: Twin Buttes View and
The next day, was devoted volcanic rocks and the geology of hot springs. We examined a basalt flow
at Sheepeater Cliff, ash-flow tuff at Osprey
Falls above Mammoth, and an obsidian flow at
Obsidian cliff. Then, we saw the very hot springs and fumaroles of Norris Geyser Basin, and saw Old
Faithful geyser and its compatriots perform. Tying these themes together, we ended the day by
examining volcanic rocks that had been horribly altered by hot springs waters (and discovered that
not all rocks by the roadside were there before the road was built).
On our final day in the Park, we stopped at the Mud Volcano area, an example of highly acid hot waters
turning rock into sloppy clay. Yet even there in boiling, acidic, sulfurous waters was
microbial life. Could Mud Volcano be like the early Earth? From there, we stopped at the Grand
Canyon of the Yellowstone. We had lunch above Tower falls, where we saw the base of a basalt lava
flow and marvelled at the complexities of volcanic geology. Mt. Washburn was our next stop - our only
look at the Absaroka volcanic rocks which underly most of the Yellowstone area. Our last stop in the
Park was at Mammoth, again, to see the beautiful active Canary springs.
The next day saw us back in Bozeman at a dorm of Montana State University. The morning was
devoted to classroom work talks about Astrobiology, volcanos, and heat in planets. The
remainder of the morning was spent with fuzzy little
"Creature Features." After lunch, we went to Dr. Ward's teaching lab, where we prepared the
microbial samples we had collected, and looked at them through the
microscope. Lots of variety. After dinner, we had a short visit to
the museum of the Rockies. The highlight was their display of ancient microbial fossils,
stromatolites, which were strikingly
similar to some of the features we had seen in the park.
On the final full workshop day, August 1, we spent the morning near the classroom, doing exercises
on impact craters, more "Creature Features," and
the Mystery Planet. After lunch, we were back
to Dr. Ward's lab to look at the microbial mat samples by 'remote sensing,' i.e. measuring their
reflectance spectra. Finally, we returned to the
classroom for a brief
discussion of mid-ocean ridge hot springs, and a talk on what makes a habitable world.
On the final half-day of the workshop, we cleaned out our dorm rooms, and saw two presentations.
the first was on Lake Vostok, beneath the Antarctic ice, and the life it might contain. Then, we
heard about a great classroom participation project of helping
map Mars using data from the
THEMIS imaging spectrometer on the Mars Odyssey spacecraft now orbiting Mars.