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Antarctica Desert Valley Reveals Hidden water

Wright Valley in McMurdo Dry Valleys

For decades, scientists have thought that the underside of Antarctica’s dry valleys contained only solid matter in the form of hard, frozen soil and rock. New research shows that there are, in fact, considerable quantities of water.

Scientists have found extensive saltwater basins located more than 100 meters beneath the permafrost, glaciers and frozen lakes that cover one of the McMurdo Dry Valleys. The MDV situated along the Ross Sea coastline, is the largest ice-free region in Antarctica, one of the world’s most extreme deserts, and includes many features such Lake Vida and the Onyx River, Antarctica’s longest river.

It is probable that the newly discovered groundwater has been kept sealed for millions of years. Due to the high salt content (brine) the lakes exist at temperature below the normal freezing point of water.

Speaking with Science News, the lead investigator Jill Mikucki, a microbiologist at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, said: “From the sky, you see isolated lakes and a polar desert. But when you look underground, you see a very different story, and that’s what’s so exciting.”

More interestingly, it is likely that the underground lakes contain microorganisms. Further explorations will be required to confirm this. The reason this is suspected is for the water to remain in the liquid form, microbes would be needed to produce the salts and solutes in the water.

The conditions are very similar to those that are found on Mars. Intriguingly, should microorganisms be found, this could indicate whether it is possible for bacteria to survive on Mars (assuming that the red planet did, at one stage, support life.)

The lakes were found using advanced equipment called airborne transient electromagnetic (AEM) sensors.

The findings have been reported to the journal Nature Communications. The research paper is titled “Deep groundwater and potential subsurface habitats beneath an Antarctic dry valley.”

About the author

Tim Sandle

Dr. Tim Sandle is a chartered biologist and holds a first class honours degree in Applied Biology; a Masters degree in education; and has a doctorate from Keele University.