Looking for Sulfur
in All the Cold Places
Tucked into a valley in the Canadian High Arctic, lies a glacial site with an intriguing story to tell. This valley, called Borup Fiord Pass, is located a little over 600 miles from the North Pole, on Ellesmere Island (yes, the same island where the Kryptonian spaceship was buried in Man of Steel and where NSA Camp Northern Light is located in Z Nation). If you were to fly over the glacier sitting in the central region of this valley, you would likely see yellow deposits of elemental sulfur at the southern toe of the glacier. This sulfur forms from sulfide-rich springs, which bring fluid and sulfur up from the depths below the glacier. In some years, these springs forms aufeis (a German word for "ice on top", implying spring derived layerings of ices) that are themselves rich in sulfide. The sulfide springs and sulfur deposits may have a lot to teach us about the geological and biological cycling of sulfur in cold and sulfur-dominated systems, on Earth and other worlds. I had the privilege to travel to this remote field site as part of my doctoral research in the summer of 2014. The trip was an incredible experience and gave me the samples I needed to conduct my research.
In 2014, small melt pools formed on top of the sulfide-rich aufeis at Borup Fiord Pass. Burping out the smell of hydrogen sulfide (smells like rotten eggs), bubbles formed on the surface of the melt pool. Some of these bubbles became covered in a smear of yellow elemental sulfur. Part of my work included assaying that sulfur goop. Using x-ray diffraction (XRD), I discovered three different forms of elemental sulfur in the material, and that led to the publication of my first first-author research article "Low-temperature formation and stabilization of rare allotropes of cyclooctasulfur (β-S8 and γ-S8) in the presence of organic carbon at a sulfur-rich glacial site in the Canadian High Arctic" which was published in the journal Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta.
I'm currently wrapping up some of my work on another unique feature of Borup Fiord Pass. Near to the glacier where the sulfur deposits are found, there is a hill where the rocks are stained red from the presence of iron oxides and pyrite veins can be found within the local carbonate rocks. Also, on this hill, are six elliptical mineralized features full of gypsum as well as iron sulfates and iron oxides. I'm now preparing a research paper showing that these features appear to have formed from the alteration of pyrite, and they are important analogs for our future research endeavors on Mars. The surface of the Red Planet contains a lot of iron and sulfur, making the chemistry of these elements likely to be important for any life that may have once existed (or may still exist) there. Our future robotic and human missions to Mars may discover pyrite alteration features, just like those I'm studying from here on Earth.