KNOXVILLE, Tenn., April 28 (UPI) -- Until now, it was considered highly unlikely that the frozen desert valleys of Antarctica hosted life, but new research suggests microbial communities likely populate the sediments buried deep below the icy surface.
According to evidence captured by advanced imaging technology, vast networks of underground saltwater lakes extend across many of the continent's rifts and valleys. The revelations came about thanks to a new research tool called SkyTEM, an airborne electromagnetic mapping sensor system.
The sensor system was used to survey the Wright Valley and the McMurdo Dry Valleys, the coldest, driest deserts on the planet. The imaging results revealed extensive brine aquifers, forming vast lakes and permeating the frozen soils beneath Antarctica's glaciers.
Scientists believe the remarkable data, and the new research it's expected to inspire, can offer new insights into the nature of ancient climatic shifts -- insights that might tell researchers something about today's changing climate.
"It may change the way people think about the coastal margins of Antarctica," lead study author Jill Mikucki, an assistant professor of microbiology at Tennessee, said in a press release. "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."
Scientists say the research has alien implications, as well. Because it is likely the brine aquifers host microbial life, researchers believe further exploration could reveal how microorganisms could survive deep beneath the surface of Mars.
The sensor used to conduct the research looks like an elaborate structure made up of antennas. To survey the continent's underbelly, the sensor system was hung from a helicopter and flown over vast expanses of Antarctica. The technology was developed at University of Aarhus, in Denmark.
The new research was published this week in the journal Nature Communications.