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A vast network of unfrozen salty groundwater has been discovered in Antarctica

A helicopter flies a sensor over Lake Frxyell in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica. Image: L. Jansan

A vast network of unfrozen salty groundwater which may support previously unknown microbial life has been discovered in the Antarctic.

The findings bring new understanding of ancient climate change on Earth and provide evidence that a similar briny aquifer could support microscopic life on Mars.

The scientists used an airborne electromagnetic sensor, SkyTEM, to detect and map otherwise inaccessible subterranean features.

The system uses an antennae suspended beneath a helicopter to create a magnetic field which shows the subsurface.

“These unfrozen materials appear to be relics of past surface ecosystems and our findings provide compelling evidence that they now provide deep subsurface habitats for microbial life despite extreme environmental conditions,” says lead author Jill Mikucki, an assistant professor at University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

The researchers found that the unfrozen brines form extensive, interconnected aquifers deep beneath glaciers and lakes and within permanently frozen soils.

The brines extend from the coast to at least 12 kms inland in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, the largest ice-free region in Antarctica.

The findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, show the Dry Valleys’ lakes are interconnected rather than isolated.

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