Chuck Kennicutt: ‘Water below Antarctic ice might harbor life’

Mysterious microbes might be lurking beneath Antarctica’s ice sheets. Oceanographer Chuck Kennicutt is interested in how organisms would make a living out of these cold, dark environments, and believes that the discovery and analysis of such microbes could shed light on how life evolved on our planet.

Chuck Kennicutt: At first it might seem unusual to think about liquid water being underneath the very massive ice sheets of Antarctica.

Oceanographer Chuck Kennicutt at Texas A&M University studies possible life under Antarctic ice.

Chuck Kennicutt: It usually takes about 2 kilometers – or a mile and a half of ice – in order to get to the right temperature and pressure to have liquid water. And so now we know about more than 140 of these lakes, and it’s only been in the last 10 years that we’ve found out that this phenomenon is in fact a common feature across the continent.

Hydrothermal vents might help keep the water liquid. Researchers have yet to drill through Antarctic ice, in search of life.

Chuck Kennicutt: We do have some indications from other areas that it’d be unlikely that life was not there. By far, the most likely scenario is that these are microbes that have adapted to these special conditions, but the prevailing wisdom is that life will be there.

Kennicutt underscored the need for scientists to avoid damage to these environments under ice sheets.

Chuck Kennicutt: In some cases they’ve been isolated for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years from sunlight. So again, they’re already under thick ice. It’s very cold. It’s dark. And so how organisms would make a living out of these environments is of great interest to try and understand how life evolved on our planet.

Our thanks today to NASA, in celebration of the International Polar Year.

Our thanks to:
Mahlon ‘Chuck’ Kennicutt
Texas A&M University
College Station, TX

Jorge Salazar