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New Data Hint Of Large Lake Beneath Antarctic Ice: Why Subglacial Lakes Excite Scientists

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A massive lake may be hiding under thick Antarctic ice, potentially harboring ancient life-forms existing undisturbed for millions of years.

This is what data presented at a European Geosciences Union meeting in Vienna, Austria indicated, drumming up interest in subglacial lakes such as Lake Vostok, the largest one in the continent measuring at least 240 kilometers (149 miles) long and 50 kilometers (31 miles) wide.

After boring through 2-mile Antarctic ice in 2013, scientists from the Bowling Green State University reported finding more than 3,500 DNA sequences – including bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes – and never-before-seen life-forms on Earth from the ice of Lake Vostok. However, other experts doubted the samples and methodology involved in the study.

Now, the discovery of another huge lake under the Antarctic ice sheet renews interest in the matter – and the chance to study existing life in a subglacial water form.

Satellite imagery showed scientists grooves on the surface of ice similar to those identified above known subglacial bodies of water.

“We’ve seen these strange, linear channels on the surface, and are inferring these are above massive, 1,000-kilometer-long channels, and there’s a relatively large subglacial lake there too,” Martin Siegert of Imperial College London, a member of the research team, told New Scientist.

According to Siegert, the ribbon-shaped lake is about 100 kilometers (62 miles) long by 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) wide, with long canyons and channels appearing to extend from it for over 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) toward the eastern Antarctic coast on Princess Elizabeth Land.

He added that a U.S. and China team recently flew over the area and collected ice-penetrating radar data to help verify the features lying under the ice. They will meet in May to study the results and test their hypothesis about the lake.

University of Aberystwyth’s Bryn Hubbard dubbed it “the last un-researched” section of the continent, although full confirmation of the findings is still pending.

Proving the lake and its channels’ existence is projected to boost research on Antarctica, whose biodiversity is believed to be as rich as the deep oceans of the world, with one research team reporting 130,000 cells in each milliliter of subglacial lake water. Christine Dow of the Goddard Space Flight Center of NASA called it the last “pole of ignorance,” a greater understanding of which will greatly impact the ice sheet’s tectonics and hydrological evolution.

And this new lake is far more accessible and easier to probe than Vostok or other remote bodies as it is situated only 100 kilometers from the closest research station, a decent distance based on Antarctic standards.

Back in January, Siegert and other scientists from Durham University, Imperial College London and international organizations detected a formerly undiscovered Antarctic canyon system believed to be exceeding the length of the Grand Canyon and rivaling its depth.

For lead researcher Stewart Jamieson of Durham, it is astonishing for such humongous features to have evaded detection for a long time, with the bed of Antarctica being even less familiar than the Martian surface.

Jamieson and other scientists stressed on the importance of these revelations not just because of the prospect of discovering novel, unique life forms on the planet, but also in better understanding the ice sheet’s response to climate change.

A separate study, for instance, found that massive icebergs breaking off from the ice sheets – once thought to be a sign of global warming – may actually be helping keep climate change at bay as they are melting. The icebergs are thought to release nutrients into the ocean, inciting massive plankton blooms that can absorb significant amounts of carbon.

Photo: NASA ICE | Flickr

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