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Hyper-Salty Lakes Found Beneath The Canadian Arctic Could Shed Light On Extraterrestrial Life

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Two salty lakes are found beneath the Canadian Arctic, the first in the region, and are believed to help scientists understand life beyond earth.

A team of scientists led by Dr. Martin Sharp, a glaciologist at the University of Alberta, discovered the hypersaline lakes while looking for subglacial continents in the Devon Ice Cap.

The subglacial lakes were accidentally discovered through the radar data from NASA. The University of Texas Institute for Geophysics examined electromagnetic waves that were sent through and reflected back on the ice. The hypothesis is that there is a moving body of water underneath the glacial surface, which at the time seemed impossible in an environment that is minus 10 degree Celsius.

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

The lake, which is located approximately 750 meters below the ice, spans 8 kilometers by 5 kilometers squared.

Hypersaline Water

Antarctica is home to the majority of the 400-plus subglacial lakes in this world, while a few can be found in Greenland.  This is the first time that this type of subterranean formation is discovered in the Canadian icy lands. Most lakes under frozen lands are believed to be freshwater.

Rutishauser said that the salinity of the Devon subglacial lake, which is four or five times saltier than seawater, is due to the melting of the basal ice from the surrounding rock formations.

Scientists likened the salinity of the lake to that of Europa, one of Jupiter's moons. Images from space centers showed that Europa appears to be comprised of ice and salty liquid on its surface.

Although there is a network of subglacial lakes underneath the Devon Ice Cap, two stood out due to a number of geologic reasons.

"The DIC lakes are situated within bedrock troughs in mountainous terrain, exist at temperatures well below the pressure-melting point, do not receive surface meltwater input, and likely consist of hypersaline water derived from dissolution of a surrounding salt-bearing geological formation," the researchers reported.

Extraterrestrial Life

Rutishauser said they are collecting samples of the saltwater to determine the presence of microbes. She said that doing so would result in new information of how organisms evolved over a period of 120,000 years in isolation from the earth's atmosphere.

Collecting water samples would mean that the team has to drill into those ice caps, which the researchers said would take some time. Rutishauser said they will be implementing safety procedures to ensure that no water contamination will occur.

The Devon Ice Cap lakes are the first of its kind on the planet. There are only a few hypersaline aqua environments that exist, namely the Great Salt Lake in Utah and the Dead Sea, which is located on the border of Jordan and Israel.

Scientists initially thought that environments like these are void of life, but recent studies have shown that halophiles or the so-called salt lovers can actually survive and thrive.

Most halophiles found in the Great Salt Lake and the Dead Sea are classified in the Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukarya families. They usually have colored membranes that appear in pink or orange hues.

The study titled "Discovery of a Hypersaline Subglacial Lake Complex Beneath Devon Ice Cap, Canadian Arctic" was published in the journal Science Advances.

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