A new study published in Nature Communications has found that the Blood Falls beneath Antarctica’s arid, hostile, mostly ice-free McMurdo Dry Valleys could be hosting microbial life.
Blood Falls, liquid waters hidden 1,000 feet (300 meters) below the surface of the Earth, get their name thanks to their salty consistency (about twice as salty and seawater) and rusty color.
Earth ecologists and planetary scientists alike are exited as this strongly supports the idea of life on Mars. Antarctic summers closely resemble Mars’ environment, where small patches of salty liquid water resurface on the planet’s soil every night, before evaporating during the daytime.
Due to the extreme weather conditions of the Martian territory, researchers generally agree that the planet’s surface is far too cold and unfriendly for any known life form to survive. They hope however that they might find more favorable conditions if they start to look beneath the surface.
Ross Virginia, an ecosystem environmentalist at Dartmouth College, explained that before this recent study scientists “didn’t know to what extent life could exist beneath the glaciers, beneath hundreds of meters of ice, beneath ice covered lakes and deep into the soil, possibilities for better understanding the combinations of factors that might be found on other planets and bodies outside of the Earth”.
She went on to say that the discovery “suggests that this ecosystem is extensive and connected. There could be a very, very large subsurface habitable environment throughout the Antarctic regions”.
To find the salty waters, lead author Jill Mikucki, a microbiologist at the University of Tennessee, took an international research team to Taylor Valley to test a newly developed airborne electromagnetic sensor.
They suspended a six-sided transmitter beneath a helicopter that flew more than 114 square miles over Taylor Valley. The antenna acted as a electromagnetic field that penetrated the ice and picked up conductivity differences in the ground to a depth of about 1,000 feet (300 meters).
As far as scientists know the Blood Falls stretch from the coast to at least 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) inland, and can also be found 3 miles (5 km) up the Taylor Glacier, however the ice did eventually become too thick for the magnetic field to penetrate and Mikucki said that they “may be representative of a much larger hydrologic network”.
Mikucki also stated that newly found waters “contain densities of microbial cells that are similar to groundwater found in other areas”, thus giving birth to theories that Blood Falls became salty either due to the freezing and evaporation of ancient, larger lakes, or by ocean water having flooded the canyons a long time ago.
This further enforces the possibility of finding living organisms on Mars, as the planet has long been believed to have once been covered in water, with its current small patches of salty liquid water believed to be mere remnants of what they once were.
And as Mikucki herself noted “Scientists have been using the Dry Valleys to test instruments since the Viking missions. So how we detect the brines and access them is relevant to work on places like Mars.”
Due to the almost alien life forms recently found in lake Vostok, another growing belief is that if we ever find life on any other planet it will most likely be similar to what we find in Antarctica. One such planet with a high probability of life is Europa, Jupiter’s moon.
Image Source: smithsonianmag.com