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Antarctica’s hidden reservoirs give hope for life on Mars

Antarctica is just not a very nice place to live. It’s dry, desolate and the closest thing we have on Earth to Mars, our solar system neighbor that humans hope to one day colonize. However, as arid as Antarctica may seem, the discovery of sub-glacial water stores by University of Tennessee researchers may give a glimmer of hope for scientists searching for active life on Mars.

“It may change the way people think about the coastal margins of Antarctica,” said Jill Mikucki, a UT microbiology assistant professor. “We know there is significant saturated sediment below the surface that is likely seeping into the ocean and affecting the productivity of things that feed ocean food webs. It lends to the understanding of the flow of nutrients and how that might affect ecosystem health.”

Using an airborne electromagnetic sensor system known as SkyTEM (developed at the University of Aarhus in Denmark), the team discovered that there are large networks of briny groundwater hiding beneath the surface of the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica, the driest, coldest desert on Earth. Deployed by a helicopter, SkyTEM was able to cover large swatches of land. The salty brines, they found, are able to form large reservoirs beneath glaciers, frozen lakes and within permafrost.

The scientists believe that these aquifers harbor life in the form of microbial ecosystems. They hope that the findings will help them better understand how these organisms survive extreme conditions. They also surveyed the Tyler Glacier, best known for its red “blood falls,” where groundwater enriched by microbes feeding on iron and sulfur deposits turns red and flows out from the front of the glacier.

If microbes can survive beneath glaciers in Antarctica, the reasoning goes, there’s no reason they can’t survive on Mars as well. As NASA continues to search for life on Mars, the UT findings should give them ideas as to where to look, if nothing else.

In addition to microbial life, the findings also give researchers insight into glacial dynamics and how Antarctica has responded to climate change over time. Earlier this year, scientists determined that parts of Antarctica had melted beneath the surface, allowing seawater to creep inland and threatening to melt ice shelves that hold back millions of tons of glacial ice.