Searching for Life in Greenland's Icy Interior Greenland's interior is a solid sheet of ice — hundreds of miles of frozen terrain that is seemingly inhospitable for life. But it's not as lifeless as you might expect.
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Searching for Life in Greenland's Icy Interior

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Searching for Life in Greenland's Icy Interior

Searching for Life in Greenland's Icy Interior

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Last week on Science Out of the Box, we visited a silver-haired bat that had taken up residence in an unlikely urban setting. This week, we visit an even more improbable habitat.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Our location: a glacier in the middle of Greenland - dozens of miles from the nearest blade of grass.

NPR's Richard Harris encountered a surprising menagerie there during a visit in July.

RICHARD HARRIS: The Greenland ice sheet really is the middle of nowhere. In summer, some parts of the sheet have running water; that is melting ice. But there's absolutely nothing to eat anywhere. It's hostile territory for living things. And that's just fine with Sarah Das from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She's out here at a camp to study the ice.

So what about ice that appeals to - obviously, you're out here because you love it, right?

Ms. SARAH DAS (Assistant Scientist, Geology & Geophysics, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution): There's no bugs.

HARRIS: No bugs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARRIS: That's it? Just no insects.

Ms. DAS: And you got to start somewhere.

HARRIS: Well, Sarah Das' world was about to be rocked and rocked big time. Here, 50 miles from the coast and at least 30 miles from anything resembling dry ground, we come upon a poor, quivering fly.

Ms. MAYA BHATIA (Graduate Student, MIT): A fly.


Ms. DAS: Is it alive?

HARRIS: Yeah. It was moving. Yeah.

She leans down with graduate student Maya Bhatia for a closer look. It's totally out of place. And seeing a vulnerable creature here highlights the brutal inhospitable nature of ice. That isolation sometimes drives people to do strange things. Das has only been out here about a week. But people who spent a long time out on the ice sheets can sometimes feel starved for contact with living creatures - any living creature.

Ms. DAS: You know, in Antarctica there was a cook one year that found a little caterpillar in the cabbage and she kept it for, like, three months alive. She bought a little terrarium for it instead of cabbage leaf.

HARRIS: Are you tempted to do the same thing with this poor fly?

Ms. DAS: No, I don't really like flies. No.

HARRIS: So no reprieve. Could it have blown inland all these miles, or could have it hitched hike out on the helicopters that brought us here? Who knows? But the fly wasn't the only unexpected visitor to a land that we thought was devoid of higher life forms, wasn't company accepted.

We also found a songbird called a wittier(ph) at the base of the camp's weather station. Okay, lifeless but recently deceased. But the biggest surprise was a sound that greeted us one day when we returned to our icy campsite.

(Soundbite of snow goose)

HARRIS: We stopped and looked around. It took a second to pick it out, but there was a large and alert white bird with black wingtips waddling among our tents.

(Soundbite of snow goose)

HARRIS: There is a very lost snow goose out here.

Ms. BHATIA: All these lost animals…

Ms. DAS: Totally (unintelligible).


Ms. DAS: These are birds that we never even seen.

Ms. BHATIA: No. It's a foreign sound.

HARRIS: Yeah. To hear a sound out here, I thought they were lost…

Ms. DAS: I thought it was coming out of my phone.

Ms. BHATIA: That's what we should take home and feed.

Ms. DAS: Instead of a fly?

Ms. BHATIA: Yeah.

HARRIS: Graduate student Maya Bhatia is actually a biologist, and out here to look for signs of life - microscopic life that is. Microbes live practically anywhere there is liquid water. So she was looking for a bacteria in the lakes that form out on the ice sheet. Even she was surprised when we came across other visible signs of life, like when we hiked around some hills of ice near our camp.

I wonder what that green stuff is on the snow?

Ms. BHATIA: Maybe green algae.

HARRIS: Ha. So you're capturing bacteria. We have green algae. We found a dead fly, or dying fly, a lost goose, a dead bird. I guess Greenland does have wildlife, huh?

Ms. BHATIA: Yeah. It's a little warmy.

HARRIS: Well, probably not global warming. Though, these days it is fashionable to blame everything on human mischief. But it is a lesson that life is amazingly tenacious even in some of the most unforgiving places on our planet.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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