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Antarctica's dry valleys brimming with microbial life

Press Trust of India  |  Washington 

Antarctica harbours hidden interconnected lakes underneath its dry valleys that could sustain life and shed light on ancient climate change, scientists have found using an airborne imaging system.

Researchers detected extensive salty groundwater networks in Antarctica using a novel airborne electromagnetic mapping sensor system called SkyTEM.

The research provides compelling evidence that the underground lakes and brine-saturated sediments may support subsurface microbial ecosystems.

The findings allow scientists to better learn how Antarctica has responded to climate change over time and help them understand glacial dynamics.

"It may change the way people think about the coastal margins of Antarctica," said Jill Mikucki, a University of Tennessee, Knoxville, 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," said Mikucki.

The researchers believe the newly discovered brines harbour similar microbial communities in the deep, cold dark groundwater.

The brines may provide insight on how microbes survive such extreme conditions. They also may provide the basis for future exploration of a subsurface habitat on Mars.

Mikucki and the international interdisciplinary team used the airborne sensor to produce extensive imagery of the subsurface of the coldest, driest desert on earth, the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica.

Because a helicopter was used to make the measurements, large areas of rugged terrain could be surveyed. The team found that brines form extensive aquifers below glaciers and lakes and within permanently frozen soils.

The airborne sensor technology was developed at the University of Aarhus in Denmark and was used in Antarctica for the first time during this study.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

First Published: Wed, April 29 2015. 16:42 IST