Hypersaline lakes could help search for extraterrestrial life

There are roughly 400 known subglacial lakes around the world.
By Joseph Scalise | Dec 02, 2018
A group of international researchers have discovered what they believe to be the first isolated hypersaline subglacial lakes in the world, a new study published in the journalScience Advances reports.

The team came upon the strange formations -- which sit between 1,800 and 2,500 feet beneath the Devon Ice Cap in Canada -- after looking at airborne radar data acquired by NASA and The University of Texas Institute for Geophysics to analyze bedrock conditions below the cap.

"We weren't looking for subglacial lakes," said lead author Anja Rutishauser, a PhD student at the University of Alberta, according to Phys.org."The ice is frozen to the ground underneath that part of the Devon Ice Cap, so we didn't expect to find liquid water."

Radar helped uncover the lakes because the method sent electromagnetic waves beneath the ground and recorded when they reflect backat contrasts in the subsurface materials. That method revealed radar signatures suggesting the presence of water. However, the team did not initially think liquid could exist in such freezing temperatures.

There are roughly 400 known subglacial lakes around the world. However, most sit in Antarctica or Greenland. The ones in the research are the first ever discovered in the Canadian Arctic. In addition, while most subglacial lakes contain fresh water, the ones in the study are made of hypersaline water that likely comes from salt-bearing geologic outcrops below the ice. That is what allows them to stay liquid despite frozen temperatures.

The newly discovered lakes are important because they act as a habitat for microbial life and could help scientists understand how life could exist in outer space. While that applies to all subglacial lakes, the fact that the Devon lakes are hypersaline makes them great examples of what might exist on any ice-covered moons in our solar system.

"If there is microbial life in these lakes, it has likely been under the ice for at least 120,000 years, so it likely evolved in isolation," wrote the team in their study. "If we can collect a sample of the water, we may determine whether microbial life exists, how it evolved, and how it continues to live in this cold environment with no connection to the atmosphere."

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