“What Will They Find?” — Ancient Antarctica Life Buried in a 10,000-Year-Old Lake

 

Antarctica

 

We know more about the ancient lakes of Mars than we know about Antarctica’s subglacial environment, but in three weeks, a team of intrepid Antarctica scientists will drill 1,000 meters (3,200 feet) into the ice to find out what’s hidden for thousands of years buried in Mercer Subglacial Lake, formed about 10,000 years ago. The lake was first detected via NASA satellite, but never explored by humans. What they find could help to form better hypotheses about life on other planets, like on Mars or Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s Enceladus.

The Subglacial Antarctic Lakes Scientific Access (SALSA) project, reports Nature, aims to uncover new knowledge about this newly explored biome through an integrative study of subglacial geobiology, water column and sedimentary organic carbon, and geobiological processes in one of the largest subglacial lakes in Antarctica.

Based on the WISSARD project’s previous research at Subglacial Lake Whillans, the researchers believe that Mercer Subglacial Lake supports an ecosystem of microscopic organisms that exists without the presence of sunlight. Instead of photosynthesis, microbes in Antarctica’s subglacial lakes survive through transforming organic matter such as relict organic carbon into energy through a process called chemolithoautotrophy.

Over December 2018 – January 2019, SALSA will set up a field camp of 50 scientists, drillers, and support staff to drill 4,000 feet into the ice and sample from this scarcely studied environment. Located roughly 500 miles from the South Pole, team members will reach the study site using specialized tractors and ski equipped aircraft.

 

Antarctica

 

The team will bore through some 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) of ice using a 60-centimeter-wide drill capped with hot water. In addition to extracting water and mud samples, the researchers will deploy a remotely operated vehicle—a scientific first for a subglacial lake.

Eleven principle investigators from eight different U.S. institutions are involved in this three-year project, along with a number of international experts. SALSA was founded and funded two years ago by the Antarctic Integrated System Science Program with help from the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs.

Earlier this week, 21 members of the SALSA science team arrived at Antarctica’s McMurdo Station in preparation for the drilling. Team personnel and cargo will be flown to the worksite, which is located about 500 miles (800 kilometers) from the South Pole. Should all go according to plan, drilling could start by Christmas. From now until January of next year, around 50 scientists, drillers, and support staff will assist with the project.

The lake is about 62 square miles (160 square kilometers ), over twice the size of Manhattan, 30 to 50 feet (10 to 15 meters) at its deepest points. The water in the lake never solidifies owing the tremendous pressure exerted onto it from the tons ice cap directly above. It’s a hydraulically active body of water, with water replacement times on the order of about a decade.

SALSA will be the third project to explore an Antarctic subglacial lake; Lake Vostok and Lake Whillans (the latter of which is very close to Lake Mercer and, like Mercer, is also located on the Whillans Ice Plain) were both explored in 2013, revealing a surprising number of microbes. SALSA scientists expect similar findings in Lake Mercer.

Once the drill pierces into the lake, SALSA scientists will extract water samples and mud, as Nature News reports in ice core sample up to 26 feet (8 meters) in length that will help the scientists age the lake and its contents, and show scientists how the lake’s microorganisms are obtaining their nutrients.

Nature News reports that “Evidence pulled up from the drilling project at Lake Whillans has spawned a series of discoveries that have shaped the current program at Lake Mercer, 40 kilometers to the southeast. The water from Lake Whillans teemed with 130,000 microbial cells per milliliter — a population 10–100 times bigger than some researchers expected. Many of the microorganisms obtained their energy by oxidizing ammonium or methane, probably from deposits at the bottom of the lake. That was a key insight, because it suggested that this ecosystem—seemingly cut off from the Sun and photosynthesis as an energy source—was still dependent on the outside world in an indirect way.

The researchers who studied Lake Whillans suspect that the ammonium and methane seep up from the lake’s muddy floor from the rotting corpses of marine organisms that accumulated during warm periods, millions of years ago, when this region was covered by ocean rather than ice.

Evidence of this food source came from Reed Scherer, a micropalaeontologist at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, who was part of the Whillans project. He found the shells of diatoms (single-celled algae) and the skeletal fragments of sea sponges littered throughout the lake’s mud. “There is a marine-resource legacy that the microbes are still tapping into,” he says.

In addition, the SALSA researchers will be on the lookout for animal life, which wasn’t detected in either Lake Vostok or Lake Whillans.

The Daily Galaxy via Nature and SALSA 

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