Just north and east of Whistler, scientists from NASA and the Canadian Space Agency are continuing to study coral-like structures that represent some of the earliest life-forms on earth - structures that could help answer the question of whether there was (or still is) life on Mars from when the surface of that planet was probably covered with shallow oceans of water.
Much of that work has been conducted at Pavilion Lake, located along Highway 99 in Marble Canyon Provincial Park. However, teams have also recently found similar structures, called microbialites, at Kelly Lake in nearby Downing Provincial Park - just north of Pavilion Lake on the road to Clinton. Divers and submersibles are used to study the formations up close, and collect samples.
BC Parks, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary, held a celebration last weekend with members of NASA and the Canadian Space Agency - working under the name MARSLIFE (Mars Analogue Research: Signatures of Life in Freshwater).
"Thanks to the donation of this park land by C.S. Downing in 1970 and its subsequent protection as a provincial park, the secrets long-held by the deep waters of Kelly Lake remain to be discovered by the MARSLIFE scientists," said B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake.
The microbialate structures, which are essentially rock formations created by bacteria that live on the surface, range in size from large rocks to boulders the size of cars. Some of the structures are solitary and others are sprawling. Some structures are in the shallows and are home to other forms of lake life, while others are at depths of 40 metres or more.
Although the unique mix of geology, water chemistry and biology that make Pavilion and Kelly lakes special is rare today, scientists believe that microbialites are one of the oldest life forms on the planet - maybe the only life form for the first few billion years of earth's history, and commonly found 2.5 million to around 540 million years ago. And nowhere on earth is there as much diversity in microbialite structures as at Pavilion Lake - unless research at Kelly Lake yields even more unique finds.
The findings will help NASA and its partners to identify areas on the surface of Mars to explore in future missions. They might not find life, but the discovery of microbialite structures or even the remains of structures would prove that life once existed on the red planet - and could potentially exist anywhere.
For more on the project, visit www.pavilionlake.com.