New Life Beneath Sea And Ice

By | November 25, 2008

Scientists have long known that life can exist in some very extreme environments. But Earth continues to surprise us. …. scientists described apparently productive ecosystems in two places where life was not known before, under the Antarctic ice sheet, and above concentrated salt lakes beneath the Mediterranean. In both cases, innumerable tiny microbes are fixing or holding onto quantities of organic carbon large enough to be significant in the global carbon cycle.

In the last decade, scientists have discovered lakes of liquid water underneath the Antarctic ice sheet. So far we know of about 150 lakes, but this number will probably increase when the entire continent has been surveyed. These lakes occur as a result of geothermal heat trapped by the thick ice, melting it from underneath, and the great pressure from the ice above, which lowers the melting point of water.

The largest subglacial lake, Lake Vostok, lies beneath the coldest place on the planet, where the temperature at the surface often falls below minus 60 degrees Celsius. “It’s the sixth largest freshwater lake on the planet by volume, and about the size of Lake Ontario,” says Christner. “If you were on a boat in the middle of the lake, you would not see shores.”

While direct samples of water from subglacial Antarctic lakes have yet to be obtained, the lower 80m or so of the Vostok ice core represents lake water that progressively freezes onto the base as the ice sheet slowly traverses the lake. “Microbial cell and organic carbon concentrations in this accreted ice are significantly higher than those in the overlying ice, which implies that the subglacial environment is the source,” says Christner. Based on accumulating measurements of microbes in the subglacial environment, he calculates that the concentration of cell and organic carbon in the Earth’s ice sheets, or ‘cryosphere’, may be hundreds of times higher than what is found in all the planet’s freshwater systems. “Glacial ice is not currently considered as a reservoir for organic carbon and biology,” says Christner, “but that view has to change.” … – sd

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