Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Science and the Search for the Abominable Snow Algae

The 2009 Everest Trek Team will perform several scientific experiments along the way to and from Everest Base Camp. These experiments range from studies of behavioral patterns and awake/sleep adaptation, to searching for snow algae at high altitude. Many of these experiments have been -- and are being -- performed by astronauts in space aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Steve Vander Ark will bring psychology questionnaires for our team (the same as used by ISS crew members), as well as a cool little device worn on the wrist called 'Actiwatch'. The Actiwatch measures body movement and light intensity and will be used to study our awake/sleep patterns and Circadian rhythms during the trek (see http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/science/experiments/Actiwatch.html).

I'll bring another small device -- small is key whether launching to space or carrying it up Mount Everest! -- called Lab-on-a-Chip, or 'LOCAD-PTS', to search for snow algae (see http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/science/experiments/LOCAD-PTS-Exploration.html).

Snow algae are cold-tolerant algae that can turn snow a beautiful pinkish color and are often known as 'watermelon snow' (see picture at top). They have been observed in polar and mountainous regions, including the Himalayas, and have an important influence upon global climate. We'll show this device to children at the PA Nepal Orphanage in Kathmandu before the trek. Will we find the Abominable Snow Algae on Mount Everest? Stay tuned!

Photos: Top, 'Watermelon snow' - the pink color is derived from a photo-protective pigment in the algae. Bottom, Suni Williams uses LOCAD-PTS aboard the ISS (March 31, 2007).

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