Research Careers in Extreme Environments

Scientist on a caving expedition.

Courtesy of G. Badino

At a time when even the scientific world seems overcrowded, an entirely new, unexplored area of science would be most welcome. But today's scientific research seems to cover it all, from the infinitely small to the infinitely large. Already one has to look beyond the Earth to find new worlds to explore.

Right? Well, no. It's a cliché among outdoorsmen: if you're dismayed by the crowds, just walk a few miles or go off-trail. In actual fact, researchers don't have to go as far as outer space to open a door on an unknown horizon. "There is a real planet underground, and almost nobody is working there," says Dr. Giovanni Badino, a scientist at the Department of General Physics of Turin University in Italy and member of the geographic and scientific exploration La Venta team.

Badino got hooked on speleology at 17 after a caving experience, and after becoming a scientist, he specialised in underground climates and speleogenesis--cave formation--in glaciers. Badino is now a pioneer in a field few scientists have heard of. Working at frontiers both literal and physical gives him a buzz of satisfaction that not so many scientists can claim to feel.

Of course there are very good reasons why human beings--including scientists--have for the most part steered clear of these most remote areas of our planet: they are extremely cold, or hot, or wet, or dry, or oxygen-deprived, not to mention hard to get to. But if these locations put human life under more pressure (literal or figurative) than the typical university laboratory, many other, mostly unknown forms of life thrive there, precisely because of those extreme conditions. Except in those few places, which we'll also describe in this feature, they are so extreme that they appear to be as sterile as the surface of Mars. Life or no life, there are all kinds of new chemical and physical processes to study.

Working in extreme environments does present some daunting challenges. While the work may require an adventurer's spirit, the preparation requires an accountant's precision: if you leave a piece of equipment behind, you can't just send a grad student down to get it. And when a piece of equipment fails, what then?

Isn't science hard enough? Why seek out working conditions that are not conducive to research, or even human life? Some of the scientists we talked to would be likely to answer: because the science is good, the opportunities are rich, and it makes them feel more alive. But let's let them speak for themselves.

Science's Next Wave has talked to scientists who work in extreme conditions to unveil what life and work is like at the frontiers of the tolerable.

Opposite Extremes. Our freelancer Jim Kling talks to Craig Cary about his research on extremophiles which takes him from the hot and wet to the dry and cold. But wherever he goes, Cary takes his laboratory with him.

Into the Jungle. Emilio Bruna (above right), a wildlife ecologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, talks to Next Wave's Robin Arnette about his research in the Amazon.

Life on the Edge. Canadian contributing editor Andrew Fazekas talks to Canadian paleogeologist Darlene Lim, a postdoc with NASA, who has conducted Mars Analog Research at both Poles and the Atacama desert in Chile.

A Volcanologist's Vista. Cambridge university volcano researcher Tamsin Mather talks to Next Wave's Anne Forde about her research, her field work in Chile, Nicaragua, and Italy, and how studying volcanoes poses many challenges but rarely the fire-and-brimstone risks that most people imagine.

Physics of the Underground World. Opportunities in cave research may be few currently, but with the development of new techniques, a whole new world is opening for future exploration, says Giovanni Badino, a speleologist and physicist at University of Turin.

Resources: A Globetrotter's guide to Extreme Science Research Centres. A list of opportunities for extreme researchers.

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