The group is studying high altitude lakes, which are considered "hot spots" of global warming and its effects, such as loss of precipitation (50 percent in 50 years in some parts), glacier retreat, and increased impact of UV radiation in bodies of water that evaporate.
According to the researchers, the conditions are very similar to what Mars might have experienced about 3.5 billion years ago.
"I'm collecting information on the lakes and the watersheds that surround them, including the transparency of the water, the zooplankton that live in the lakes, and the materials in the water that control transparency," said Miami University zoology grad student Kevin Rose.
"One of the main goals of the project is to use the lakes as analogs to what potentially existed on Mars millions of years ago. By examining the most extreme environments on Earth, such as extremely high UV, low oxygen, low temperatures, and low pH, we can infer what life, if it existed, may have had to deal with on Mars," he explained.
The project not only addresses the question about early Mars water, habitability, and life, it also documents a subject of critical importance on Earth right now: how water resources and life are responding to the climate change Earth is experiencing today.
"Very few places in the world have the extreme conditions found here," said Rose.
"The Atacama desert is the driest place on Earth. The lakes are among the highest in elevation in the world. UV levels here are among the highest on Earth. The combination of these factors makes it an ideal site to study how life persists in an extreme environment and the conditions in which life can thrive," he added.
According to Rose, understanding the response of these lakes and life adaptation to rapid changes may hold important clues to forecasting the evolution of other threatened terrestrial lakes, and possibly finding solutions to global warming.