Topical Martian Field Studies in the Ka'u Desert, Hawaii
The Ka'u Desert is located on the western flank of Kilauea Volcano. It received about 130 cm of rain every year, so it is not a true desert. Rather, it is a desert because of the gases that are released from Kilauea, including over 800 tons of sulphur every day. This creates a harsh, acidic environment that prohibits plant growth. Because it is covered in basaltic lava flows and tephra, the Ka'u Desert may be the best analog to what we currently think early Mars was like, which is the same period in time when life was starting on our own planet. Because of the unique and diverse geology of the Ka'u Desert, there are a several research investigations we are conducting here, including mapping and characterizing basaltic sand dunes, characterizing the physical and chemical changes of basaltic material as it is transported by different geologic processes (wind and water), and assessing the types of microbial life that live in this environment—and how they do it.