Series: Inside Earth – NPS Cave & Karst News – Summer 2017

Installation of a Bio-Cleaning Station & Planetary Exploration Experiments in Park Lava Tubes

four rangers walking through shoe cleaning station
Lava Beds National Monument’s Batty Road, a new walk-across cleaning station to clean visitor’s shoes of possible WNS fungal spores. NPS photo.

Submitted by Katrina Smith, Natural Resource Program Manager and Randy Paylor, Physical Science Technician

Adaptive Management for White-nose Syndrome: The Bio-Cleaning Station
In response to the advancing front of WNS and high volumes of visitors entering the monument with shoes and equipment that have been in other caves, Lava Beds National Monument (LABE) has implemented a walk-across cleaning station to mitigate the risk of human-mediated WNS transmission. This station was modeled after Mammoth Cave National Park’s cleaning station and was constructed by LABE’s Maintenance crew. The station is placed under the large awning near the front door of the Visitor Center so that visitors may use the station autonomously or after receiving instruction from a ranger. The station consists of a piece of artificial lawn meant to remove dirt and debris, a cleaning tray and bio-security mat filled with 3% hydrogen peroxide to kill fungal spores, and finally a thick rubber mat to remove the excess hydrogen peroxide before visitors step back onto the concrete. The station has been affectionately nicknamed ‘Batty Road’ by our interpretation staff who have encouraged its use through social media and direct contact with visitors.

This bio-cleaning station is meant to be used by low-risk visitors—those who have been in caves in states not yet known to be WNS-positive, but that are outside of the local area (defined by monument boundaries). High-risk visitors—those who have been in caves in states known to be WNS-positive—will still be required to fully decontaminate their clothing, shoes, and equipment before entering caves at Lava Beds.

We will continue to provide decontamination service for the small number of high-risk visitors, however, we are focusing many of our efforts toward education and outreach so that visitors know the proper procedures for decontamination and can do so themselves before they visit the monument. The monument has developed a postcard with simple instructions for decontamination that is given to visitors who request such information or who plan to visit other caves after Lava Beds. We will be contacting tour bus companies, local schools, and other large groups that frequently visit the monument to provide them with clear instructions for decontaminating their gear before they arrive or leaving those items at home. Additionally, we plan to produce a short video showing the steps of decontamination and educating potential visitors about the threats of WNS. Finally, we are offering a weekly BatWalk program throughout the summer, encouraging visitors to connect with bats by viewing echolocation calls in real-time with SonoBat LIVE. Education and outreach has long been, and continues to be, critical to the success of our WNS-Response Plan.

Caves in Space: Researchers conduct planetary exploration experiments in NPS lava tubes
Lava tube caves can be found in many areas on Earth and in many of our national parks and monuments. Volcanic processes have produced similar basaltic tube and pit features on the Moon and Mars, and recent orbital imagery is revealing more and more of them. As a result, space agencies are focusing efforts on finding effective ways to explore these features with rovers and ultimately manned missions. Lava tubes on other planets have the potential to become ready-made shelters for explorers and colonists, away from harsh surface conditions and dangerous radiation. In the short term, rovers exploring lava tubes might discover signs of life or important resources like water ice that are protected by the more stable underground environment.

With those ultimate goals in mind, two different groups of researchers have adopted Lava Beds National Monument (LABE) as an analog for off-world lava fields. The sheer number and variety of lava caves at LABE (800 caves and counting) provide an excellent resource for studying the physics, biology, and mineralogy of tube systems, and for discovering the best ways to remotely find and explore them.

Dr. Kelsey Young of NASA’s Johnson Space Center is leading a team of researchers from NASA and multiple universities in a grant-funded project titled TubeX (think SpaceX!). The multi-year TubeX project is investigating a combination of field technologies to develop strategies for exploration. Terrestrial LiDAR datasets for both the caves and the surfaces above the caves are being collected in order to create full 3-D models to compare to surface geophysics. The project is striving to advance ground penetrating radar (GPR) processing techniques by building a library of GPR responses to different tube geometries. Magnetometer surveys are being collected at the surface above lava tubes to better understand localized magnetic anomalies associated with tube formation, and shallow seismic lines are being run across caves to see how surface waves may indicate voids. TubeX is also utilizing handheld x-ray fluorescence units to obtain geologic data for different basalt flows to understand how compositional differences might affect geophysics measurements. All of this information will be integrated to determine the most effective combination of methods that will advance cave exploration on other planets.

Dr. Richard Leveille of McGill University in Montreal is leading another team of researchers and students from multiple universities as well as the SETI Institute and NASA, funded by a grant from the Canadian Space Agency and in-kind funding from NASA and SETI. Dr. Leveille’s project, titled ATiLT, or Astrobiology Training in Lava Tubes, is focused on both training of students and improving techniques that simulate aspects of a Mars exploration mission to look for biosignatures. ATiLT is working to find mineral signatures associated with microbial activity; characterize microbial communities in biofilms on cave walls, minerals, and in drip water; and analyze perennial cave ice for unique biology and isotopic patterns. The ATiLT project is also currently testing surface electromagnetic (EM) geophysical techniques to both locate tubes and characterize different substrates within tubes. Mineral signatures are being tested in the field with a laser ablation prototype that analyzes mineral spectra and is a model for a possible rover instrument. Bioassays and laboratory work will identify cold-adapted microbial communities and biologic indicators that could help the search for life on Mars.

Field work on these high-profile projects will continue next year in additional cave systems within LABE. You can follow the ATiLT project on Twitter at @ATiLT_project. In the interim, data for the 3-D cave models (including virtual cave fly-throughs), geophysics, and biology will be shared with the park and utilized for resource management and interpretive programs. Because the NPS does such an incredible job at preserving our unique national lands and features, particularly caves, it has played and can continue to play a key role in advancing important science, even when that science is for other planets!