Eric Hopton for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Antarctica may not be the frozen wasteland many people imagine. Helicopters carrying a novel airborn electromagnetic mapping sensor system, known as SkyTEM, have discovered hidden interconnected lakes beneath its dry valleys. This is the first time SkyTEM, developed at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, has been deployed in Antarctica.
The scientists behind the project believe the valleys could sustain life and help us understand more about ancient climate change.
The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and provides compelling evidence that the underground lakes and brine-saturated sediments may support subsurface microbial ecosystems. The findings helped the team understand glacial dynamics and also revealed how Antarctica has responded to climate change over time.
“It may change the way people think about the coastal margins of Antarctica. We know there is significant saturated sediment below the surface that is likely seeping into the ocean and affecting the productivity of things that feed ocean food webs. It lends to the understanding of the flow of nutrients and how that might affect ecosystem health” said Mikucki.
The newly discovered brines form extensive aquifers below glaciers and lakes and within permanently frozen soils. They could contain similar microbial communities in the deep, cold dark groundwater. The brines may also give an insight into the way microbes survive such extreme conditions. They may even provide the basis for future exploration of a subsurface habitat on Mars.
Blood Falls microbes
The international interdisciplinary team used the airborne sensor to gather extensive imagery of the subsurface of the coldest, driest desert on earth, Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys. Using a helicopter meant measurements from large areas of rugged terrain could be surveyed.
The helicopter also flew the sensor over the Taylor Glacier which has a unique feature known as Blood Falls, where iron-rich brine from the subsurface is released at the front of the glacier. Blood Falls has an active microbial community where organisms use iron and sulfur compounds for energy and growth. This process facilitates rock weathering.