Nav: Home

Scientists discover first subglacial lakes in Canadian Arctic

April 11, 2018

An analysis of radar data led scientists to an unexpected discovery of two lakes located beneath 550 to 750 metres of ice underneath the Devon Ice Cap, one of the largest ice caps in the Canadian Arctic. They are thought to be the first isolated hypersaline subglacial lakes in the world.

"We weren't looking for subglacial lakes. The ice is frozen to the ground underneath that part of the Devon Ice Cap, so we didn't expect to find liquid water," said Anja Rutishauser, PhD student at the University of Alberta, who made the discovery while studying airborne radar data acquired by NASA and The University of Texas Institute for Geophysics (UTIG) to describe the bedrock conditions underneath the Devon Ice Cap. Ice penetrating radar sounding measurements are based on electromagnetic waves that are sent through the ice and reflected back at contrasts in the subsurface materials, essentially allowing scientists to see through the ice.

"We saw these radar signatures telling us there's water, but we thought it was impossible that there could be liquid water underneath this ice, where it is below -10C."

While there are more than 400 known subglacial lakes in the world, concentrated primarily in Antarctica with a few in Greenland, these are the first found in the Canadian Arctic. And unlike all the others--which are believed to contain freshwater--these two appear to consist of hypersaline water. Rutishauser explained that the source of the salinity comes from salt-bearing geologic outcrops underneath the ice.

Rutishauser collaborated with her PhD supervisor, UAlberta glaciologist Martin Sharp and University of Texas geophysicist Don Blankenship as well as other scientists from University of Texas at Austin, Montana State University, Stanford University, and the Scott Polar Research Institute to test her hypothesis. The bodies of water--roughly eight and five kilometres squared, respectively--exist at temperatures below freezing and are not connected to any marine water sources or surface meltwater inputs, but rather are hypersaline, containing water four to five times saltier than seawater, which allows the water to remain liquid at these cold temperatures.

These newly discovered lakes are a potential habitat for microbial life and may assist scientists in the search for life beyond earth. Though all subglacial lakes are good analogues for life beyond Earth, the hypersaline nature of the Devon lakes makes them particularly tantalizing analogues for ice-covered moons in our solar system.

"We think they can serve as a good analogue for Europa, one of Jupiter's icy moons, which has similar conditions of salty liquid water underneath--and maybe within--an ice shell," said Rutishauser.

"If there is microbial life in these lakes, it has likely been under the ice for at least 120,000 years, so it likely evolved in isolation. If we can collect a sample of the water, we may determine whether microbial life exists, how it evolved, and how it continues to live in this cold environment with no connection to the atmosphere."

Rutishauser believes that similar salty rock outcrops occur underneath other Canadian Arctic ice caps. "Although the Devon hypersaline subglacial lakes are very unique discoveries, we may find networks of brine-rich subglacial water systems elsewhere in the Canadian Arctic."

Rutishauser and her colleagues are now partnering with The W. Garfield Weston Foundation to undertake a more detailed airborne geophysical survey over the Devon Ice Cap this spring to derive more information about the lakes and their geological and hydrological contexts. For three generations, The W. Garfield Weston Foundation has pursued its mission to enhance and enrich the lives of Canadians. With a focus on medical research, the environment, and education, the Foundation aims to catalyze inquiry and innovation to bring about long-term change. As the Foundation marks its 60th anniversary, it continues to collaborate with a broad range of Canadian charities to further world-class research, explore new ideas, and create tangible benefits for the communities in which it works.

Following completion of her PhD with Sharp at the University of Alberta this summer, Rutishauser will start a postdoctoral fellowship in the fall at the University of Texas at Austin.

"Discovery of a hypersaline subglacial lake complex beneath Devon Ice Cap, Canadian Arctic" was published in the April 11 edition of Science Advances.
-end-
This research was supported by funds from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Alberta Innovates Technology Futures, the CRYSYS Program (Environment Canada), the G. Unger Vetlesen Foundation, the Fulbright Scholar Program, NASA, the U.S. National Science Foundation, and the UK Natural Environment Research Council.

University of Alberta

Related Water Articles:

Water, water, nowhere
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh's Swanson School of Engineering have found that the unusual properties of graphane -- a two-dimensional polymer of carbon and hydrogen -- could form a type of anhydrous 'bucket brigade' that transports protons without the need for water, potentially leading to the development of more efficient hydrogen fuel cells for vehicles and other energy systems.
Advantage: Water
When water comes in for a landing on the common catalyst titanium oxide, it splits into hydroxyls just under half the time.
What's really in the water
Through a five-year, $500,000 CAREEER Award from the National Science Foundation, a civil and environmental engineering research group at the University of Pittsburgh's Swanson School of Engineering will be developing new DNA sequencing methods to directly measure viral loads in water and better indicate potential threats to human health.
Jumping water striders know how to avoid breaking of the water surface
When escaping from attacking predators, different water strider species adjust their jump performance to their mass and morphology in order to jump off the water as fast and soon as possible without breaking of the water surface.
Water, water -- the two types of liquid water
There are two types of liquid water, according to research carried out by an international scientific collaboration.
Just add water? New MRI technique shows what drinking water does to your appetite, stomach and brain
Stomach MRI images combined with functional fMRI of the brain activity have provided scientists new insight into how the brain listens to the stomach during eating.
UM researchers found shallow-water corals are not related to their deep-water counterparts
A new study led by scientists at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science found that shallow-reef corals are more closely related to their shallow-water counterparts over a thousand miles away than they are to deep-water corals on the same reef.
Saline water better than soap and water for cleaning wounds, researchers find
Researchers found that very low water pressure was an acceptable, low-cost alternative for washing out open fractures, and that the reoperation rate was higher in the group that used soap.
UTA research predicting lake levels, moving water to yield better data for water providers
A University of Texas at Arlington environmental engineer is creating an integrated decision support tool for optimal operation of water supply systems that will allow water providers to make better decisions about when to turn on pumps to transfer water from one reservoir system to another and when to release water downstream from the reservoirs.
Surfing water molecules could hold the key to fast and controllable water transport
Scientists at UCL have identified a new and potentially faster way of moving molecules across the surfaces of certain materials.

Related Water Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Don't Fear Math
Why do many of us hate, even fear math? Why are we convinced we're bad at it? This hour, TED speakers explore the myths we tell ourselves and how changing our approach can unlock the beauty of math. Guests include budgeting specialist Phylecia Jones, mathematician and educator Dan Finkel, math teacher Eddie Woo, educator Masha Gershman, and radio personality and eternal math nerd Adam Spencer.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#517 Life in Plastic, Not Fantastic
Our modern lives run on plastic. It's in the computers and phones we use. It's in our clothing, it wraps our food. It surrounds us every day, and when we throw it out, it's devastating for the environment. This week we air a live show we recorded at the 2019 Advancement of Science meeting in Washington, D.C., where Bethany Brookshire sat down with three plastics researchers - Christina Simkanin, Chelsea Rochman, and Jennifer Provencher - and a live audience to discuss plastics in our oceans. Where they are, where they are going, and what they carry with them. Related links:...