Journalist Report – June 5th

By Jordan Bimm.

Whether you’re on Earth or on Mars, if you’re looking for life, you follow the water. But this year, following the water around MDRS has been harder than ever. After visiting five initial field sites a big early takeaway of this mission is that this year is significantly dryer than any we have seen in 2019, 2022, or 2023. Already we have twice had to adjust our science plans on the fly due to arriving at a site only to find a hoped-for river or creek bone dry. We made tongue-in-cheek comparisons to the ancient river delta at Jezero crater that NASA’s Perseverance rover is investigating. In both cases water once flowed, but not currently. In both cases this absence of water poses a serious challenge for the search for life.

Today, following these setbacks, Shannon Rupert suggested we investigate a new field site she had visited many times in the past, but that our crew had not investigated. Coal Mine Wash is located about a 30 minute drive west of MDRS in the direction of Factory Butte. “If there’s no water at the pool, I’ll really be concerned,” Rupert said. From her description we knew this wasn’t a swimming pool but a prominent pond, a hidden oasis nestled in rock reachable via a short hike through a long-dry riverbed. Stunning rock formations, their rounded edges and oval window-and-arch-like structures, were carved by flowing water millions of years ago and lined the trail, towering over us on either side.

As we hiked in, we paid close attention to any evidence of animal activity. “Scats and tracks,” as Samantha McBeth is fond of putting it. McBeth points out that many types of desert fauna love the plethora of nooks and crannies the rock formations provide. They’re like nature’s condo buildings and perfect for avoiding the sun as well as predators. Walking in we noticed, measured, and cataloged tracks indicating recent pronghorn, mule deer, coyote, red fox, jack rabbit, whiptail lizard, shrew, and ground squirrel activity. Overhead cliff swallows and grey flycatchers flitted past, checking us out. Based on scat patterning, we also identified a likely bat roost in a rock overhang.

As we moved closer to our aqueous destination we noticed an increase in vegetation, which appeared larger and in greater abundance, as well as more bird activity. Strong signals that water lay ahead. Still, we had our doubts, and needed to see the water to believe it.

After twists and turns, and scrambling down a large stone ledge which spanned the miniature canyon, we arrived in the vicinity of “the pool.” Peering over a high ledge and onto the landscape below we let out a whoop of celebration and a sigh of relief. Water. We saw the large circular pond surrounded on all sides by stone walls below us. In the early morning sun the surface appeared bright green and the water level looked low based on visible water rings. We found a narrow pathway along one side which took us down to the soft mud next to the pond where we discovered a menagerie of tracks imprinted.

McBeth sprang into action deploying one of her critter cams, and Jacopo Razzauti began checking the pond for mosquitos and their larvae. Once McBeth had her camera deployed and Razzauti had captured several mosquitos using his aspirator, a tool insect scientists use to literally suck tiny bugs into a collection container, we turned to one final task at the Coal Mine Wash pond. McBeth directed the crew to disperse to different areas around the water source. On her signal we all hit record on our phones’ voice memo app, capturing a 2 minute long soundscape of the site. McBeth plans to use these field recordings of ambient sounds to confirm the presence of birds based on their distinctive calls.

Walking back out, and headed to our next site of the day, Salt Wash, we marveled at the natural beauty of the rock formations surrounding us, and celebrated a badly needed win: water where we thought there would be some.

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