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The Most Surreal Lake in the World Is a Portal to Some Very Weird Things

Pavilion Lake, a 3.6 mile long, half mile wide body of water located in Marble Canyon, British Columbia, is famous for what visitors call “freshwater corals.” Even the fuzziest picture of them impresses; images recorded on a pipe inspection camera in...

Pavilion Lake, a 3.6 mile long, half mile wide body of water located in Marble Canyon, British Columbia, is famous for what visitors call "freshwater corals." Even the fuzziest picture of them impresses; images recorded on a pipe inspection camera in 2001 reveal structures that are ancient-looking but lovely, like banks of hydrangeas. "Pavilion Lake is a special lake," says Darlene Lim, a geobiologist who has spent much of her professional life there, and is now the principal investigator in charge of what NASA calls the Pavilion Lake Project. “There had been a lot of recreational diving,” Lim explains, “because the freshwater corals were an attraction. But it wasn’t until there was one man named Harry Bohm who actually put two and two together and thought there might be some kind of scientific value to these rock formations.”


Lim was preparing to start her post-doctoral studies with Chris McKay at NASA Ames Research Center when she heard about Pavilion Lake’s peculiar bounty. "Around 1997, I think, there was a small, little trip that was mounted with about five people," Darlene recalls. She is an excitable woman—she says things like "the science is completely different" and she doesn't sound like Jeff Goldblum in the first act of a movie where something's gone horribly wrong. Even when talking about alien-looking lifeforms, she still makes you feel at ease. Over the phone, she is explaining this complex project to me, in essence, a passion that’s consumed the last fifteen years of her life, while reminding her toddler every few minutes that she's on the phone. Somehow she does it all very quickly and very well.


She first learned of the lake, she says with a near-audible shrug, because word simply had gotten around, as if the astrobiology community were just a higher-minded garden club. Her mentor McKay thought immediately that its strange structures could be freshwater microbialites, a hunch which was both unusual and correct, and that led to a published paper in Nature in 2000, which established the peculiarity of Pavilion Lake, and set Lim on her path.

Let’s get small for a moment. Microbialites are organosedimentary structures that, in the words of the article, "abound" in fossil records. These rocks, corals, reefs, whatever you want to call them to avoid saying the word "microbialite" — pronounced mi-CRO-be-ah-light — are usually very old and very enigmatic; the ways in which they are produced are still unknown, in spite of conscientious work to date and analyze them. That there were microbialites in fresh water was remarkable, but so was the age of these particular structures. They seemed modern.


"My job, initially, was to go away and work out the geochemistry of the lake and understand the chemistry that’s in place currently that could lead to the formation of these rocks, and to also put this lake into context among the other lakes in the area, to see if there was anything special," Darlene said. She hustled for several grants and put together a follow-up mission in 2004 to continue studying the reefs at Pavilion. “But I realized that’s just one very small component of a lot of different things that needed to be done, not only to understand the basic chemistry of the lake, but where the carbon sources were that were entering the lake,” she said. "There was a great collaborator in Canada that wanted to answer that."

GIF by Daniel Stuckey

Leaping ahead, the collaborator she means here is not NASA – although the space agency is very much interested in Pavilion Lake as an analog, a testbed, for practicing human trips to Mars. It is Nuytco, a submersible company from Vancouver that proved a crucial partner for the project’s sonar mapping needs. As science funding dries up, lurking in the background—there's no other word for it, so ingrained in my psyche are the tropes of science fiction and horror—are the private benefactors. You imagine that they're sharks in suits, but your journalistic instinct, as small as it is, begs you to clarify. Which sharks are these again? And what could be gained from learning the answers to her questions? She is asking, after all, where this life they cannot explain is coming from, and what could be bigger than that?

"The other thing that we knew about this lake but that we needed to follow up on," Darlene recalls, "was that it was groundwater-fed. There are some environments in the world where groundwater will feed a lake system and the right chemistry’s in place to form what are called tufas: they’re inorganic or carbonate formations. Formations that are not directly formed by biology. So that was a consideration that we had: that, potentially, what we saw in the lake was not formed by biology."


Tufa rocks, by the way, are also lovely to look at, even on your computer screen: tall, Stonehenge-y structures that tower over bodies of water like Mono Lake, in California, or the coastline of Western Australia. It's a satisfying Google image search, sort of like looking at paintings of brimstone or other ominous scenes from the Bible. The formation is so commonly found in fluvial and lacustrine environments that a whole city in Armenia, Yerevan, consists of buildings constructed with pink tufa rock. "Geobiology is pretty much all-encompassing, in terms of bringing together a multitude of different disciplines to try and answer some kind of scientific question," Darlene muses, and I nod.

The project grew. Another nearby lake landed on their radar: Kelly Lake. "We had a couple of divers jump in and just tool around and take a look at the bottom and survey it for microbialites. What was so cute was, one of the divers—who ended up becoming one of our program managers as the project grew—he came up to the surface, and before I saw him, I saw his hand come up with a rock. I was standing on shore and he was probably about twenty meters away. And I just heard this voice yell, 'Is this what you’re looking for?' I was close by, and it was totally it." Totally a microbialite.

I laugh. The image of a hand shooting out of the water with a prehistoric rock is very exciting, like an opening set piece in a movie. "Everything we did was either based on the water in that we would collect water or put instruments into the water from a boat, or we had to actually get into the water and get wet. So either through scuba diving; or using our AUVs, Autonomous Underwater Vehicles; ROVs, which is Remote Operated Vehicles; or actually having the submersibles in the water with pilots in them. What was always so brilliant is that doing science underwater is just a seamless extension," Darlene says. "It’s an easy, seamless extension to imagine that what we’re doing is what somebody would do if they were on the moon, on Mars, or a near-Earth object." Before I can ask more about near-Earth objects, which I'm desperate to hear about, Darlene's toddler interrupts with an important question about an animal cracker.


Oh, right: Lim is based at NASA, and her professorial enthusiasm isn't just there to broaden my mind. It also functions as a shield against any potential for divulging confidences and controversy. I fantasize about what she would say next if she were a different kind of person, someone slipperier. "We're going to Mars, Jen," I imagine her confessing. "That's what this is all about, obviously. Colonizing Mars." My fantasy gets greedier: "And we're doing it tomorrow." But she's deft at talking past buzzy words, perhaps like someone entrusted with space secrets should be.

"We also had a participant come to us in the astronaut corps," she continues. My attention returns. Astronauts! "He was, by luck and by wonderful timing, also working up other analog programs at NASA Johnson. But they were very focused on technology development and testing and mission operations and communications. Nobody was actually looking at real science operations and how we could learn from real science operations, in terms of what types of tools and infrastructure and protocol need to be in place to make us as scientifically productive as possible while being in a hostile environment, like being underwater or in space."


A hostile environment! I try to jump in, but she turns back around. "It just was a really easy transition to take what we were doing and offer it up as a learning opportunity to the exploration community. All of the management tools that we came up with to answer those real-science questions have now been used at other analog sites. They’re getting used on other missions, NASA missions. There’s also the possibility of extending some of this knowledge to the commercial sector, as well.

"What’s awesome is," she gushes, "the project—I’m really proud of this aspect—became an incubator for what, to a lot of people, seemed like really innovative ideas. Coming up with solutions for us to manage our science output, our data synthesizing in real time, to take all that information and view it and make decisions as to where we want to go next in a very rapid-fire way." It's amazing how talk of technology can derail any sort of theorizing about colonizing a distant planet.


At her suggestion I'm now thinking about submarines and scuba gear, and we're talking about how endless this project truly is, about how great it is to share their data with other analogs like NEEMO and something called Resolve, which is a "robotic traverse." The kid interrupts again.

One of the first human spaceflight analogs was a submersible built in the late ’60s called the Ben Franklin. There are grainy pictures of the intrepid team of early deep-sea divers, surrounded by dark blue bubbles, tilted forward inquisitively like early pioneers on the frontier. For all I know, these aren't pictures of people at the Ben Franklin at all, but rather stills from a Jacques Cousteau film.

She brings us back. "So," she says, "we were interested in bringing in technologies to help us, and then we developed the tools to support all of that activity and data-collection in the field, because that’s the science need that we had." I coo uncertainly at "science needs." She fleshes this out: "Something like Desert Rat, which is a different analog program that NASA has, they’re actually developing space-exploration vehicles, space suits, landers, things like that. We’re bringing in technologies that we don’t want to test. Those are the ones we’ve chosen. We’re not trying to make them better in any way."

I stutter, and she continues. "But we had to put a whole lot of other infrastructure in place, to manage the data-collecting. All that management infrastructure is extremely relevant to different reference missions, for example, headed to the moon, to near-Earth objects, to Mars. Because ultimately, our astronauts are going to have to do science on off-world systems or off-planet systems, for sure." My eyebrow twitches. Near-Earth objects. Off-world systems. I jump in, finally. Is she allowed to talk about those projects, I ask, like I'm asking for a piece of pie.

"I am not," she says, and practically giggles. "I am actually very much not."

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