Discovery of subglacial lakes could advance search for extraterrestrial life

The discovery of two subglacial lakes could shed light on the possibility of life on other planets.
By Tyler MacDonald | Apr 11, 2018
Radar data analysis has led scientists to the discovery of two lakes beneath 550 to 750 metres of ice under the Devon Ice Cap, according to Phys.org. The cap is one of the largest ice caps in the Canadian Arctic, and the newly discovered lakes are believed to be the first isolated hypersaline subglacial lakes in the world.

"We weren't looking for subglacial lakes,"said Anja Rutishauser, who made the discovery while analyzing airborne radar data fromNASA and The University of Texas Institute for Geophysics (UTIG). " The ice is frozen to the ground underneath that part of the Devon Ice Cap, so we didn't expect to find liquid water."

The radar sounding measurements that can penetrate ice are based on electromagnetic waves that are sent through the ice and reflected back at contrasts that exist in subsurface materials. Essentially, it allows scientists to see through the ice.

"We saw these radar signatures telling us there's water, but we thought it was impossible that there could be liquid water underneath this ice, where it is below -10C," said Rutishauser.

Although there are more than 400 known subglacial lakes in the world, these are the first to be discovered in the Canadian Arctic. Most of the others are concentrated in Antarctica, with a few in Greenland. And unlike the others, these two appear to be made of hypersaline water. This is contrary to the other subglacial lakes, which are believed to contain freshwater.

Rutishauser believes that similar salty rock outcrops are hiding beneath other ice caps in the Canadian Arctic.

"Although the Devon hypersaline subglacial lakes are very unique discoveries, we may find networks of brine-rich subglacial water systems elsewhere in the Canadian Arctic," she said.

The lakes are a potential habitat for microbial life, and could be used in our search for life on other planets.

"We think they can serve as a good analogue for Europa, one of Jupiter's icy moons, which has similar conditions of salty liquid water underneathand maybe withinan ice shell," said Rutishauser.

The findings were published in Science Advances.

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