Subglacial Lakes Could Offer Extraterrestrial Life Preview

By Nathaniel Scharping | April 11, 2018 1:00 pm
The surface of Canada's Devon Ice Cap. Two lakes likely lie over 2,000 feet below. (Credit: Anja Rutishauser)

The surface of Canada’s Devon Ice Cap. Two lakes likely lie over 2,000 feet below. (Credit: Anja Rutishauser)

These days it’s hard to find a place on Earth where humans haven’t interfered in some way. Venture to the most remote jungle or the depths of the Mariana Trench and you’ve likely been preceded by some emissary of humanity, whether that’s chemicals carried on the wind or something more tangible.

But there are places where our long shadow has never reached, where the events of the past 100,000 years might as well have never happened. Locked deep below gargantuan sheets of ice thousands of feet thick in Canada, researchers have discovered what they believe to be two lakes, saturated with salt and closed off from rest of the world for millennia.

A Different World

Subglacial lakes aren’t anything new — hundreds lie beneath Antarctica, and one, Lake Vostok is estimated to be the sixth-largest in the world by volume. For many, their contents have remained pristine by virtue of isolation. Scientists often see them as time capsules, snapshots of global conditions at the time they were closed off.

But some function almost as alternate realities. Samples from some of these lakes, such as Vostok, indicate that microbial communities are alive and well under the ice, even without sunlight. These organisms exist, and have existed, entirely separate from the flora and fauna that teem across the Earth — they might as well live on another planet.

And that’s why these environments, particularly those recently discovered in Canada, are so interesting to researchers. As we think about where in our solar system (and beyond) life might exist, researchers are looking to Earthly environments for inspiration. Chile’s Atacama desert, for example, might resemble Mars; hydrothermal vents under the sea might have close analogues elsewhere in the solar system.

At the moment, Jupiter’s moon Europa looks to be a solid candidate for finding extraterrestrial life. The moon likely has a large, salty ocean beneath an icy crust, which satisfies one of the most basic requirements for life. The water probably interacts with the bedrock, which would allow for crucial chemical reactions to take place. Sadly, sending a mission to Europa, especially one that would actually bore into the ice, would be fairly difficult and isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.

Water Under Ice

And that’s where these subglacial lakes come in. Researchers from the University of Alberta and the University of Texas at Austin were conducting radar scans of the terrain underlying Canada’s Devon Ice Cap, which lies north of the Arctic Circle near Greenland, when they noticed some unusual signatures. Bedrock normally scatters the signals, but they saw two areas where the signal was reflected with an odd amount of precision. The only explanation that made sense was that two bodies of water, roughly two and three square miles in area respectively, lay deep below, the researchers say.

Given the water lies under enormous pressure, with an average temperature well below freezing, the researchers say that it must be highly saline to remain in a liquid state. Based on models of the glacier at that depth, salt levels must be around four or five times that of the oceans, according to the researchers. They published their research Wednesday in Science Advances.

The salt probably comes from the bedrock the lakes are in contact with, they say, making them an outlier even among subglacial lakes. Just one other hypersaline lake, under Taylor glacier in Antarctica, is known to exist, and these newly discovered lakes may be even saltier.

While the researchers have no set plans at the moment to sample water from the lakes for microbes, the environment makes it an ideal model for other salty oceans in the solar system. If life exists in such environments here on Earth, it’s an indication that it could do so elsewhere as well.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
  • OWilson

    Life on Earth is hardy, adaptable and persistent!

    Once it starts! :)

    • StanChaz

      It’s more of an invasive infestation than “life”…

      • OWilson

        Life is what you make it!

  • Uncle Al

    One confidently predicts the universe is scummed with life given water between -40° and +121° C, for starters. Four important questions arise,
    … 1) Are its chiral protein amino acids left-handed and its chiral sugars right-handed?
    … 2) Does it use nucleic acids for information storage?
    … 3) Can it play pinochle?
    … 4) Does it find us good to eat?

    ,,, No, it doesn’t work in liquid methane, silicone oil, or at red heat.

  • Dennis Spirgen

    I would have more confidence in the people discussing the potential for extraterrestrial life if they would draw a distinction between where life can survive and where life can arise. Once life arises, it can evolve to deal with conditions where it never could have begun. Is a cold, saline sub-glacial lake really a potential cradle of life?

    • OWilson

      The desperate, hopeful and expensive search for alien life continues apace, and is driven by godless scientists in a well paid research industry, and those in society who cannot accept that our presence here on this tiny speck is miraculous! (In the biblical sense) :)

      • Dennis Spirgen

        I feel sad for people whose faith is so weak that it is threatened by the search for knowledge. If there is other life in the universe, will that diminish your relationship with God?

        • OWilson

          I’m an atheist :)

          They haven’t found life in our local neighborhood, despite continuing to send Radio Shack circa 1970 remote toys to Mars for the last 50 years or so!

          Should be lots of life there now, what with contamination from the scrapyard we are leaving behind!

          Theoretical physics can tell us more about our origins and it’s cheaper.

          It is out of fashion because there’s no money in it!

          This decadent Kardashian society produces bill nye, not Einstein, puff daddy not Beethoven, pollack, not Michaelangelo! the simpsons, not Shakespeare!


          • Dennis Spirgen

            So you’re denial of life beyond our own planet is driven by ego rather than religion. That’s possibly even sadder. You sound like the boy, who having found no elephant in his back yard, concludes that elephants are a myth.

          • OWilson

            When you find life elsewhere, let me know!

            You will be famous!


            The nearest star 4 or 5 light years away, (round trip hundreds of thousands of years with present technology) and we can never in our lifetimes hope to get there and back with any information!

            Even if we could “observe” the signs of life by telescopes, it may be dead by the time we got there! We are looking into the past, not the present.

            We should (if all the nations of the World agree) send out our contact info, by signal and wait for a response.

            Or, conversely, since Bill Nye, your “Science Guy” and his ilk, says that life will start wherever conditions are favorable, I just say conditions are favorable right here on Earth,

            All you need to do is get into the lab and produce alien life!


          • Mike Richardson

            Some folks worry about the costs of everything, and know the value of nothing, I’m afraid. Regardless of one’s faith, the search for life, and perhaps even intelligence, beyond the Earth could answer some of our most profound questions about the universe and our place in it. Unfortunately, not everyone has an inquisitive mind, particularly if the answers to those questions might force them to reexamine what they think they already know.

          • OWilson

            I actually agree with that! :)

            A rare uptick for Mikey!

          • Mike Richardson

            “The desperate, hopeful and expensive search for alien life continues apace, and is driven by godless scientists in a well paid research industry, and those in society who cannot accept that our presence here on this tiny speck is miraculous! (in the biblical sense) ” –OWilson, apparently lamenting the godless and those who don’t accept biblical miracles.

            “I’m an atheist .” — OWilson, proudly proclaiming himself godless.


            Exactly how many personalities reside in you?

          • OWilson

            I am godless, but I am in no hurry to spend $billions to disprove a mythical bible story!

            Just send out the signals and wait for a response. It’s cheaper!

            Comprehension problems or just trolling?

            No time to play with you today, Mikey!

            (See below for more!)


          • Mike Richardson

            No comprehension problems here. Just amazed at the level of cognitive dissonance you display, and then attempt to justify with a bizarre assumption about what motivates the scientists seeking knowledge regarding extraterrestrial life. I guess you don’t LOVE these scientists, right? 😉

    • okiejoe

      I don’t think anyone would claim life began there independently since these lakes have been isolated for no more than a few million years but any life there has evolved in isolation from the rest of the world’s life.

      • Dennis Spirgen

        If life did not begin independently in a subglacial lake, there is no reason to believe that similar life would begin independently in the water beneath the icy crust of Ganymede or any similar moon. So contrary to the headline, subglacial life is not a “preview” of extraterrestrial life,


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