Researchers at the University of Alberta have discovered extremely salty subglacial lakes buried beneath 1800-2460 feet of ice in the Canadian Arctic. This extremely unusual discovery offers scientists a glimpse into how similar environments on other planets and moons function – and it could guide the search for extraterrestrial life. Ph.D.student in radio glaciology Anja Rutishauser made the discovery while studying the bedrock conditions found underneath the Devon Ice Cap, one of the Canadian Arctic’s largest ice caps.
“We weren’t looking for subglacial lakes,” Rutishauser told ScienceDaily. The ice is frozen to the ground underneath that part of the Devon Ice Cap, so we didn’t expect to find liquid water.” Rutishauser initially noticed something unusual while studying airborne radar data acquired by NASA and the University of Texas Austin. “We saw these radar signatures telling us there’s water, but we thought it was impossible that there could be liquid water underneath this ice, where it is below -10C.”
The Devon lakes are the first subglacial lakes to be discovered in the Canadian Arctic as well as the first hypersaline lakes found on Earth. “We think they can serve as a good analog for Europa, one of Jupiter’s icy moons, which has similar conditions of salty liquid water underneath — and maybe within — an ice shell,” said Rutishauser. This similarity to lakes found on other planets may shed light on how life on other planets may exist and function. “If there is microbial life in these lakes, it has likely been under the ice for at least 120,000 years, so it likely evolved in isolation. If we can collect a sample of the water, we may determine whether microbial life exists, how it evolved, and how it continues to live in this cold environment with no connection to the atmosphere.”