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Lake Beneath Antarctic Ice Could Hold Hidden Life

A lake, and large canyon system, under the Antarctic life may harbor life. Continue reading →

British scientists believe they may have discovered a large lake beneath the ice of the Antarctic continent, one that may harbor life that has lain undisturbed for millennia. They believe the lake, which measures approximately 87 by 12 miles, is connected to a canyon system that in total is roughly 680 miles in extent. The scientists first published their finding in the journal Geology and expanded upon them this month at the European Geosciences Meeting in Vienna.

Their conclusions are based on discerning faint grooves in the ice after closely examining satellite imagery of the area, in a region of the froze continent known as Princess Elizabeth Land.

"We've seen these strange, linear channels on the surface, and are inferring these are above massive, 1000-kilometer-long channels, and there's a relatively large subglacial lake there too," Martin Siegert of Imperial College London, a member of the research team,">told New Scientist.

Antarctic Lake May Contain Extreme Life Forms

Siegert further stated that researchers from China and the US have flown over the region and gathered ice penetrating radar data, which they hope will confirm the presence of the under-ice features.

"We're meeting in May to look at the data," he said. "It will be a very good test of our hypothesis about the lake and channels."

Although big, the putative lake would not be the largest discovered under the frozen ice cap of the Antarctic. That honor belongs to Lake Vostok, which measures 160 by 30 miles - which would make it the sixth-largest in the United States, more than twice as large as Utah's Great Salt Lake and bested only by the Great Lakes.

Antarctic Lava Lake Huffs, Puffs Like Dozing Dragon

In 2012, Russian scientists drilled a borehole into Lake Vostok, which has been covered by ice for 15 million years and lies more than two and a quarter miles below the surface, and claimed to have found evidence of unusual life. However, their findings were met with skepticism and controversy because the water samples were contaminated with fluid used to help the drilling process; last year, having corrected their technique, they began to drill for a second time.

An American team that drilled into Lake Whillans - a sliver of water just 7 feet deep, which is half a mile below the surface of the Ross Ice Shelf - in 2013 was able to avoid such contamination issues by deploying a series of sterilization measures. To their astonishment, they found microbial life in a density comparable to that in many of the world's deep oceans, and a complex community of bacteria and archaea at least 4,000 species strong.

The shock of finding such an array of life, living in apparent isolation and far from the reach of sunlight, was compounded by the discovery by a team deploying an ROV two years later of a species of translucent fish, as well as some small crustaceans. Where exactly the nutrients come from to sustain such life remains to be determined, and the story may not be the same for every lake; subglacial lakes near the coast such as Whillans, for example, may have a very different history than the more isolated Vostok.

But it's possible that these most unlikely of ecosystems are fed by some form of chemosynthesis, in which bacteria and other microbes feed on minerals that descend from the ice above or seep through the marine sediments below.

Scientists believe that lakes beneath the Antarctic ice sheet may harbor previously unknown life.

Step right up, folks, and witness Antarctica, the amazing shrinking continent. This polar desert may be the coldest, windiest continent on the planet, but Antarctica has everything the modern adventurer would want, from exotic wildlife to awe-inspiring landscapes to advanced research facilities and more. No amount of showmanship can express the value of the continent of Antarctica more than glimpses of what the polar landscape has to offer the curious traveler. But Antarctica is also under threat like never before in human history. So now is the time to explore the planet's coldest continent before it's too late.

VIDEO: Who Controls Antarctica

One of the first stops on any visit to Antarctica should be to see the animals who have basically become a sort of mascot for the continent, the always dapper penguins. While the majestic emperor penguin may be the most famous species in the southern continent, they aren't the only penguins in Antarctica or even the most populous. The Antarctic Circle also hosts four other varieties of penguins, including Adélie penguins, chinstrap penguins, gentoo penguins and macaroni penguins. These birds total in the tens of millions when all the species are combined, but their ranks have been thinned right along with the ice as climate change takes its toll. The shrinking continent threatens both their breeding grounds and food supply, particularly for emperor, Adélie and chinstrap penguins, studies have found.

Penguins Have Bad Taste

Penguins aren't the only animals that call Antarctica home. Fish, albatross, seals and other animals share the landscape and can be seen on a typical Antarctic voyage. One of the most easily spotted animals are the whales that swim in the Antarctic Ocean. Many species can be found around the southern continent, including blue whales, killer whales, humpbacks, sperm whales and more. In fact, earlier this year, researchers reported

the discovery of a new whale species

after detecting its unique song pattern. As with penguins, climate change has had an impact on whales for the worse, affecting their migration patterns and food supply.

Sperm Whale Caught on Camera in Rare Encounter

Although not as famous as its northern cousin, aurora australis, the Southern Lights, bathe the Antarctic skies in an brilliant green glow. The light show can be credited to solar particles entering Earth's atmosphere. The Southern Lights (pictured over the National Science Foundation's South Pole Station) are less accessible than the Northern Lights, which can be seen over many populated areas. In the south, however, there is little land over which the aurora is viewable. The Southern Lights are also only viewable between March and September, when the days are dark most or all of the time depending on the month. Cruises only travel to Antarctica during the summer months, however, between November and March.

VIDEO: Massive Northern and Southern Lights Explained

More than 100 years ago, Capt. Robert Falcon Scott led the ill-fated British Antarctic, also known as Terra Nova, expedition. The mission cost him his life but cemented his legacy as a hero. Built in 1911 by crew members of Scott's expedition, the Terra Nova hut is located on Cape Evans on the west side of Ross Island. Measuring 50 feet long (15 meters) by 25 (7.6 meters) wide, the hut was constructed as a base from which Scott would set upon the expedition to the South Pole and could house up to 33 men. More than 8,000 artifacts are preserved in the hut, including furniture, various food items, scientific instruments, photographs and a darkroom.

Forgotten Discoveries of Scott's Antarctica

Scott's hut isn't the only historic home on the Antarctic site-seeing tour. Ernest Shackleton's hut at Cape Royds, which also conveniently is adjacent to a colony of Adélie penguins, still stands more than 100 years after it was built. Constructed during Shackleton's second expedition to Antarctica between 1907 and 1909, in addition to the various artifacts one might expect an early 20th-century polar explorer to have handy, the historic site also held a cache of 25 cases of whiskey, 12 cases of brandy and six of port.

According to the U.S. Antarctic Program

, the explorers relied on strong spirits to cope with the long insomnia-inducing days and bone-chilling nights.

100-Year-Old Negatives Recovered From Antarctica

Located at the southern tip of Ross Island, McMurdo Station has been the primary Antarctic research facility for the United States since its completion in 1956. The site hosts all the facilities needed for a remote research community, including but not limited to dormitories, administrative buildings, a fire station, a power plant, a water treatment plant, stores, clubs, warehouses, a science support center, a harbor, landing strips, a runway and a helicopter pad. McMurdo supports research programs stretching over a variety of disciplines including astrophysics, glaciology, integrated system science, ocean and atmospheric sciences, according to the U.S. Antarctic program,

which also hosts a live view of the research station online


Antarctic Sea Ice May Force Research Stations to Move

Don't let the name fool you. Deception Island harbors an honest-to-goodness tourist attraction. In addition to the natural beauty of the area, the site offers a natural hot spring in which travelers can take a soak. For visitors looking to take a trip through time, the island also houses the rusting remnants of a former whale oil outpost, abandoned in the early 1930s when whale oil prices plummeted, as well as is a few buildings that made up a British base, left desolate in the 1970s. Above, an American researcher warms his hands on a seaside fumarole in this photo taken in 1962. Why does Deception Island seem to welcome visitors but discourage settlement? The island is the site of an active volcano, which explains why the only people willing to attempt an extended stay these days are scientists.

DNews Video: Meet the Guy Who Went Into a Volcano

When not blocked by icebergs, rendering it impassable, Lemaire Channel offers visitors a postcard-perfect view of Antarctica. Lemaire Channel is roughly 7 miles (11 kilometers) long and runs between Booth Island and the Antarctic peninsula. Ships traveling the channel will be greeted by snow-capped mountains on both sides. The channel also happens to be a prime spot for whale-watching, with humpbacks or killer whales occasionally following a ship's wake.

Drifting Iceberg Spins Out Ocean Tunes

No trip to Antarctica would be complete without a visit to the South Pole. Fortunately for the modern traveler, there's no need to travel by foot to get there. The most common means of seeing the South Pole is in a helicopter. In addition to the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station seen in the Southern Lights slide, the South Pole also carries all of the flags of the nations that lay claim to some slice of Antarctica. The site also contains the Ceremonial South Pole, a metallic sphere on top of a red and white striped pole. Above, the American flag is repositioned every year on New Year's Day to account for the movement of ice.

DNews Video: What Will Happen When the North and South Poles Flip?