Antarctica May Contain "Oasis of Life"

Christine Dell'Amore
National Geographic News
December 27, 2007

Antarctica is not a barren polar desert but a rich, complex environment that may contain a thriving "oasis of life," experts say.

Researchers have uncovered a complex subglacial system miles under the ice where rivers larger than the Amazon link a series of "lake districts," which may teem with mineral-hungry microbes.

This watery environment may be more than one-and-a-half times the size of the United States, scientists say, which would make it the world's largest wetland.

"This is essentially a whole new world that ten years ago we didn't know existed," said Michael Studinger, a geophysicist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in New York.

"If you peel back the ice sheet, you would expect a watery landscape similar to what we would see on the surface of Earth."

Dramatic Development

Studinger's research focuses on "recovery lakes," part of a a series of cascading lakes found earlier this year under the ice sheet.

The lakes—isolated from the atmosphere for more than 30 million years—ebb and flow as they empty into the polar sea. They stay fluid because the ice sheet above acts like a gigantic down blanket, trapping heat rising from Earth's interior.

About 145 lakes have been found, under ice up to 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) thick.

Recovery lakes trigger ice streams that lubricate and drain parts of the ice sheet into the ocean, meaning they may provide surprising insights into the effects of global warming, Studinger said.

Because so much of Earth's freshwater is tied up in these ice sheets, warming trends may add to the lubricating effect and release more water than anticipated into the ocean, raising sea levels.

"Fifteen years ago people thought the east Antarctic ice sheet was frozen to bedrock, but now we know that's not the case," he said.

Continued on Next Page >>


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