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Huge salty aquifer found under Antarctica

Antarctica’s Dry Valleys are home to briny lakes at the surface. Now scientists find liquid salt water – possibly containing unknown ecosystems – below ground.

Researchers supported by the National Science Foundation have gathered evidence for “extensive” liquid salt water – a salty aquifer, possibly supporting unknown microbial ecosystems – underneath Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys. They announced their discovery last week (April 28, 2015) with the video above and with the publication of the work in the open-access journal Nature Communications.

They say these hidden acquifers might also retain evidence of ancient climate change.

The team used an helicopter-borne sensor electromagnetic (AEM) sensor – called SkyTEM – to penetrate the surface of large swathes of terrain in the Dry Valleys. They found extensive brines, or salty water, below glaciers, lakes and within Antarctica’s permanently frozen soils. Team leader Jill Mikucki, an assistant professor of microbiology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, said:

These unfrozen materials appear to be relics of past surface ecosystems and our findings provide compelling evidence that they now provide deep subsurface habitats for microbial life despite extreme environmental conditions.

In addition to providing answers about the biological adaptations of previously unknown ecosystems that persist in the extreme cold and dark of the Antarctic winter, the new information could also help scientists to understand whether similar conditions might exist elsewhere in the solar system, specifically beneath the surface of our neighboring planet, Mars. Overall, summertime conditions in the Dry valleys ecosystem -intensely cold and very dry – closely resembles the surface on Mars.

The team found evidence that brines flow towards the Antarctic coast from roughly 18 kilometers (11 miles) inland, eventually discharging into the Southern Ocean, a biologically rich body of water that encircles Antarctica. It’s possible that nutrients from microbial weathering in these deep brines influence near-shore biological productivity in that ocean.

However, the vast majority of Antarctica’s coastal margins remain unexplored.

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Bottom line: Scientists find extensive liquid salt water – a salty aquifer, possibly containing unknown ecosystems – below ground in Antarctica’s Dry Valleys.

Deborah Byrd

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