Hidding Antarctica’s Ice,Digging Beneath Antarctica for Gems
The Antarctic ice conceals a smorgasbord of secrets. Once a warm forested part of the world during the age of the dinosaurs, many fossils of which are just waiting to be excavated, it also features the world’s largest canyon system and a treasure trove of meteorites that were forged in the fiery furnace at the beginning of the Solar System.
There are also liquid freshwater lakes beneath the surface of the ice realm. Lake Vostok is probably the most well-known: After being left undisturbed for around 25 million years, scientists were overcome with curiosity and it was carefully breached. In early January, the start of summer in Antarctica, a dozen tractors towing sleds laden with 1.2 million pounds of scientific equipment completed a two-week trek from the United States’ McMurdo Station to a site 614 miles across the ice. More than 20 researchers who had arrived by plane used the gear to bore a hole nearly half a mile into the ice—becoming the first people ever to fetch a clean sample from one of the continent’s hidden lakes, arguably the most pristine bodies of water on the planet . What they found promises to open a new chapter in our understanding of life on earth.
Now it appears that researchers have another subterranean lake to add to their increasingly diverse collection of hidden geological gems. As revealed by the research team at the annual gathering of the European Geophysical Union (EGU) in Vienna this month, it is second only in size to the enormous Lake Vostok.
Ice at the surface is shaped by what type of rock it’s resting on, so by looking at unusual geographic features using ground-penetrating radar, scientists are able to make good guesses as to what may be concealed beneath. This time around, a collection of grooves at the surface revealed to the international team – who were in fact responsible for the canyon discovery last year using the same method – that a subglacial lake, complete with its own channels, still exists beneath the ice.
The lake itself is around 100 kilometers (62 miles) long, 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) wide, and is ribbon-shaped. It also appears connected to the canyon, and channels leading away from it may be transporting water towards the West Ice Shelf and into the ocean.For several decades at least, scientists have known that vast chambers filled with water lie untouched beneath Antarctica’s 5.4-million- square-mile ice sheet. With remote sensing tools, they have mapped nearly 300 subglacial lakes, kept from freezing by geothermal warmth. Any organisms living there, scientists think, might be unlike earth’s other residents, having been locked away for up to millions of years.
Researches Reports on Antarctica’s Ice
The researchers, from the U.K., China and the U.S., are meeting this May to discuss the radar data that they have independently gathered, in order to try and absolutely confirm the existence of both the canyon system and the subglacial lake. Both would be of immense interest to biologists, who are keen to explore ecosystems that have remained untouched for tens of millions of years.
Whether or not these newly-discovered regions contain life is yet to be seen. However, this possibility isn’t a particularly unlikely one: The research team investigating Lake Vostok, for example, have found hints that simple microbes could still be thriving at these icy depths.
Possibly heated by hydrothermal activity – hot, mobile fluids associated with volcanic processes – Vostok was reported to have evidence of more than 3,500 different DNA sequences hiding within it, from bacteria and archaea to viruses and even fish. However, the study in question has been openly doubted by other researchers, so more data is required before this can be settled.
Other scientists had tried to delve into Antarctica’s hidden realm. In December, a British team called off an effort to reach Lake Ellsworth because of technical difficulties. And a Russian project aimed at Lake Vostok retrieved samples bathed in kerosene from the drilling process .
Back in climate-controlled labs in the States and Europe, Priscu and his colleagues have been running more tests. Any day now, they expect to publish results describing what exactly lives in Lake Whillans and how it survives there.
What’s next for the scientists depends on what the tests reveal, says University of Edinburgh geoscientist Martin Siegert, who led the drilling attempt at Lake Ellsworth. In the next decade, Siegert expects, scientists will find “several hundred more” of these watery Antarctic reservoirs. But he doubts this pure exploration of our planet will last much longer: “We’re in the last phase of pursuing information where nobody has set foot.”
Unbelievable Facts about Antarctica’s Ice
This microbial life has survived without sunlight for up to 1 million years, so it seems more than likely that it can also be found in more of Antarctica’s 350 buried lakes – including, of course, this new addition to the family.
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