Antarctica is long suspected of harboring many, many secrets underneath its thick ice sheets, some of which measure approximately three miles thick. Recently, scientists drilled a hole into the sheet over what’s known as Lake Mercer, one of 379 subglacial lakes beneath the ice.
What they dredged back up from the ancient lake and lakebed seems to confirm their suspicions – life existed there, and may yet still. Implications of their newest discovery could change what we know about the Earth’s geological and animal history as we know it.
Researchers from the Subglacial Antarctic Lakes Scientific Access (SALSA) began drilling on December 26, 2018, and drilled for 48 hours. They only stopped when the drill hit one kilometer deep; the deepest hole to date peering into any of the continent’s ancient ice sheets.
Check out this footage of the researchers drilling into the ice sheet:
Follow us down the SALSA borehole as we go 3500 ft through the Antarctic Ice Sheet into Mercer Subglacial Lake. The UV collar at the top of the borehole irradiates sources of contamination. Once at the lake, we see the transition between the water and the bottom of the ice sheet. pic.twitter.com/af8Yoh8hCM
— Salsa Antarctica (@SalsaAntarctica) January 21, 2019
Initially, they found only microbes and tardigrades, also known as water bears, which are extremely resilient and can reanimate themselves after getting frozen. This find surprised the researchers since all they found with a similar project at Lake Whillans were microbes. Because the two lakes share similar properties, including the water, the researchers assumed microbes would be all to find at Lake Mercer.
What they found next is even more exciting. After putting the mud they brought up from the lakebed under a microscope, scientists say they also found what looks like the remains of spiders and worms, as well as various crustaceans with legs.
This finding could mean many things, such as the water streams that feed Lake Mercer and Lake Whillians brought ancient remains of the critters to the area, and the remains settled. Or, possibly that moving ice sheets dragged the remains from other areas, only to settle there when the ice stopped moving and the lakes filled. Either way, researchers think the animal carcasses are thousands of years old. But the species of water bear they found indicates they may be much, much older than that.
The report notes that the water bear species they found only inhabits warm waters. Although we’ve known that the continent wasn’t always covered in ice, the last time Antarctica was warm was millions of years ago. In fact, 35 million years is just a short blip of time geologically speaking.
According to Leeds University’s School of Earth and Environment Professor Jane Francis, Antarctica used to be covered in a lush, green environment. She said:
“Lots of furry mammals including possums and beavers lived there. The weather was tropical. It is only in the recent geological past that it got so cold.”
Extreme cold has stopped humans from exploring the area, but not for lack of trying. Temperatures regularly reach up to -94 degrees Farenheit during its winters; a temperature recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records. The continent is the only one on the Earth without humans living on it. Getting to and exploring the continent is extremely difficult as well. That’s part of the reason that when scientists go there, they stay for months at a time at various base camps set up for living in extremely cold temperatures.
All of this new information leads to a could of intriguing questions… Are the carcasses they found indigenous to the area? If so, what is the true age of the remains the scientists brought up?
If they’re really thousands of years as they think, this might mean that Antarctica was warmer more recently in history, something that would shatter our current understanding of the Earth. But, if they’re really more like 35 million years old, what else will they find? Also, if they are millions of years old, it would be interesting to find out how they died. Did they die naturally, or as a result of the changing climate that froze the south pole?
The implications of the recent discoveries are too numerous to count. Once they do carbon dating and DNA sampling of some of the more important finds, we’ll have answers to these questions. And maybe reshape our understanding of the Earth’s evolution — and the sciences.
Featured Image: Screenshot via Twitter.