Scientists find large water system beneath Antarctica’s dry valleys

An international team of researchers discovered salty groundwater beneath the Dry Valleys region of the world’s coldest and driest continent, according to findings published in the current edition of Nature Communications.

The discovery of groundwater in this area may offer a glimpse into past climactic events on Antarctica, as well as clues about the potential for life on other planets.

The groundwater was found throughout the valley around Antarctica’s Blood Falls, a curious outflow where red-tinted liquid seeps out of the Taylor Glacier and into West Lake Bonney. From that finding, scientists inferred that the iron-rich Falls are the outflow of a larger groundwater system.

Since microbial life was previously identified surviving in the isolated extreme cold and dark conditions at Blood Falls, scientists believe more may exist farther below in the newly-identified briny aquifers.

“If Blood Falls is representative, then these ecosystems are much more extensive than we thought,” Jill Mikucki told PBS NewsHour. Mikucki is a microbiologist from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and the lead author of the study.

Antarctica is the region of the Earth most comparable to Mars, according to NASA. Its extreme conditions are similar to those of Martian polar ice caps. These harsh and otherworldly features, as well as the opportunity to study the possibility of extraterrestrial life, drew Mikucki to the region initially.

Mikucki, along with a diverse team of scientists were able to pinpoint the areas where liquid lies beneath the freezing, arid surface thanks to a new tool called SkyTEM.

Developed by Danish scientists, including geophysicists who participated in this National Science Foundation-funded study, a helicopter-mounted electromagnetic instrument introduces a current into the ground and measures the responses of the materials below. The data that the device receives provides a picture of underground resistivity, indicating whether the material below is likely ice or liquid.

This was the first time SkyTEM, which has been flown over Mount St. Helens and the Galapagos Islands, was used in the world’s southernmost continent. The researchers favored SkyTEM because it was able to cover large swaths of the inaccessible wastes that blanket Antarctica.