Cave Life in Climate Change

Ice Caves, Microbial Communities, and Global Changes in Temperature


Human Exploration of Caves


Cave geometry and global warming are major concerns for the exploration of caves on Earth. Investigators often need to navigate rubble-covered floors and interrogate targets tens of meters overhead. Ice caves such as the one shown in Fig. A in Rotmoosferner glacier in the Austrian Alps pose steep terrain challenges for rover navigation. Laser Induced Fluorescence Emission (L.I.F.E.) signatures (Figs. B&C) were obtained by B. Sattler. 

L.I.F.E. employs non-contact, non-destructive optical technology designed to find and characterize microbial communities without disturbing the organisms or their environment. The system can detect organisms living on the surface of rocks and soil, or living within ice and water.

in July, 2011, the cave collapsed (Fig. D). Fortunately the science team members were not inside during the collapse. But the event highlighted the dangers of this work for human survey teams. 

As part of a collaborative effort with colleagues Birgit Sattler, Roland Psenner, Markus Tilg, Christoph Kohstall, and Andreas Trenkwalder at the University of Innsbruck we are defining the operational requirements for the rover laser system when it is asked to autonomously find and select biotic samples in the ice caves of the Austrian Alps.

Robotic exploration offers a safer alternative both here and on other terrestrial planets and moons. However, navigation and sample selection decisions will need to be made autonomously while the rover out of contact with scientific and engineering personnel.


Professor Sattler exploring an ice cave in the Austrian Alps.


Robotic Exploration

The Austrian Science Ministry has funded the development of a prototype of a non-invasive, non-destructive L.I.F.E. spectrometer. The project, entitled “Ice Caves as Glacial Refugium of Microorganisms and their Non-Invasive Investigation” is led by Professor Birgit Sattler of the Institute of Ecology, University of Innstruck. Dr. Sattler is a distinguished scientist of the Kinohi Instiute. 

The international study will investigate the ability of a Laser Induced Fluorescence Emission (L.I.F.E.) spectrometer to evaluate, characterize, and monitor microbial communities in ice caves in Europe and Iceland. The investigation is strengthen by collaborations with colleagues at Natursport Tirol; Young University, Innsbruck; University of Bristol, Glaciology School, UK; Zentralanstalt für Meteorologie und Geodynamik (ZAMG); and the Austrian Space Forum. Middle school chlidren from three schools will participate in the research: Carl Sandberg Middle School Illinois, USA; Gymnasium in der Au, Innsbruck Ökolog Hauptschule Zirl.


A dual wavelength (405 nm and 532 nm) laser spectrometer developed at the University of Innsbruck, Institute of Ecology.

For more information of L.I.F.E. signals from microbes living within ice see Life in Ice.