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, .newscientist.com/article/2085523-huge-never-before-seen-lake-spotted-hiding-under-antarctic-ice/">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.