Salt ponds could be clue to life on Mars

A scientist who searches for extraterrestrial life will use a zeppelin airship to watch red salt ponds turn green while the environment is changed from near-Martian conditions into wetlands.

Work will begin next year on a decades-long project to restore thousands of acres of industrial salt-harvesting ponds in the South Bay into native wetland habitat.

The ponds are colored red because of the color of microbes that flourish in the extremely salty conditions. Green microbes will replace red ones as the wetlands are restored.

Mountain View-based SETI Institute scientist Rocco Mancinelli secured NASA funding to use zeppelin airship flyovers to track the color of the salt ponds.

Color changes will provide clues about the speed with which competing populations of tiny organisms die and recover as the environment is restored.

Mancinelli on Tuesday plans to take the airship on a reconnaissance flight over the Bay to test sensors that will monitor the salt ponds’ microbial populations.

For future flyovers, Mancinelli or a colleague will occupy an airship seat during a tourist flight and use monitoring equipment to collect data about the water color.

The airship is well-suited for the project, Mancinelli said.

“It flies low and it flies slow,” he said. “They can fly back and forth and zigzag a bit over the salt ponds.”

The monitoring equipment, including cameras and equipment that detects light that’s invisible to humans, will support other salt pond research by Mancinelli.

Other scientists will monitor fish, bird and plant populations as the wetlands are restored.

The researchers’ findings could provide insights into how wildlife changes as its environment heals.

In reverse, the findings could help scientists predict wildlife changes as environments become more hostile, such as through global warming.

The salt pond environment is of special interest to Mancinelli because it resembles the last viable living environments likely found on Mars, which is now a barren, dry planet where life, if it ever existed, would struggle to survive.

Mancinelli is a researcher at a 24-year-old nonprofit institute that aims to understand the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.

As water disappeared from Mars’ surface — either into space or deep into the planet — salt was left behind and the briny environmental conditions grew similar to the salt ponds.

Monitoring the conversion of the South Bay salt ponds into wetlands will offer clues about how any Martian life might have adapted as lush environments turned into salty ponds.

Changing habitat

15,100 acres Commercial salt ponds in South Bay planned to be restored into wetland habitats

40,000 acres Bay wetland habitat aimed to eventually be restored through a variety of projects

85 percent San Francisco Bay wetlands that disappeared due to human activity

150 Scientists employed at the SETI Institute

5 Zeppelin monitoring flights initially planned by SETI Institute scientist

$1,025 Price of a two-hour zeppelin airship tourist trip over San Francisco Bay

12 Passengers who can fit on a zeppelin airship tourist flight

Sources: South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, SETI, Airship Ventures

jupton@sfexaminer.com

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