Home EnvironmentalSubglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
EnvironmentalBy Trista -

Antarctica is a place of extremes. Its temperatures have plunged to nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, yet it is also experiencing some of the worst effects of climate change and global warming. It is covered in snow and ice, yet much of it is a desert that receives little to no snowfall each year. It has a diverse population of people from approximately 30 countries at any given time, yet all of its residents are scientific researchers who are working under an international treaty. It even has mountain ranges that are completely buried by snow and ice.

Believe it or not, Antarctica is home to an array of life forms, some of which are unique to its dry, cold environment. Some researchers there study the plant and animal life to see what it can reveal about earth’s distant past and what life may be like if it exists elsewhere in the universe.

Antarctica also has landforms and geographic features that seem to be better suited to another planet, because they do not resemble anything else on earth. There are bodies of liquid water that flow underneath the continent’s massive ice sheets because they are warmed by geologic activity underneath the earth. Want to learn more about this fascinating and extreme continent? Keep reading!

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
Not many people know that Antarctica is actually a desert. Shutterstock.

Antarctica Is The Driest, Coldest Place On Earth

The seventh and most southernmost continent holds several world records, including the coldest temperature ever recorded and the least amount of precipitation, including snow. The coldest temperature that human-made instruments have ever recorded was 128.56 degrees Fahrenheit below zero – that’s equal to 89.2 degrees Celsius below zero! It was recorded at the Vostok research station in Antarctica.

The aptly named Dry Valleys, located in Antarctica, are the driest place on earth. They have so little precipitation that, despite being on the frozen continent, they have almost no snow or ice on them.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
Because there are no other landmasses, the continent can experience a lot of wind. Shutterstock.

Antarctica Is Also Extremely Windy

Polar regions, such as Alaska, Greenland, and northern parts of Canada, are notoriously windy, with wind speeds that can exceed 100 miles per hour. Antarctica, in addition to having the coldest temperature recorded and driest location on earth, holds no exception to high polar winds.

In fact, winds on the southernmost continent have been known to reach 200 miles per hour. That wind speed equal to a category five hurricane! Human-made instruments are unable to cope with wind speeds that are that extreme so that the highest wind speeds could be over 200 miles per hour.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
Despite being surrounded by the ocean, there is much freshwater there. Shutterstock.

Antarctica Has A Lot Of Fresh Water

The Antarctic ice sheet is the single largest ice sheet on the planet, and it covers much of the continent. In fact, 99% of Antarctica is covered in ice! Furthermore, the continent is big, larger than Australia or the United States. That is a lot of ice.

The ice in Antarctica contains over half of the world’s fresh water, with some estimates placing that number as high as 70%! It also includes 90% of the planet’s freshwater ice. Moreover, inside that freshwater is an abundance of minerals that have been locked away in frozen solitude for millions of years.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
The ice is quite thick that it would take a very long time to dig through it. Shutterstock.

The Antarctic Ice Sheet Is Surprisingly Thick

Not only is 99% of the continent covered in an ice sheet, but that ice sheet is remarkably thick. The average thickness of the ice is one mile. Imagine having to walk 5280 feet in order to reach the bottom of the ice sheet!

The thickness of the ice in Antarctica makes research there somewhat tricky. To find what lies underneath all of the ice, researchers have to drill down a mile, or even more in some places, to get to the bottom of it. That process is dangerous, expensive, and time-consuming, as the instruments can freeze, and the people doing the drilling can very quickly get frostbite.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
However, because of climate change, this sheet is getting thinner and thinner every year. Shutterstock.

The Antarctic Ice Sheet Is Melting

Climate change is caused by human activity, notably the burning of fossil fuels. Polar regions – especially Alaska, Greenland, northern Russia, and Antarctica – are experiencing the worst effects of earth’s rising temperatures. Their temperatures are rising much more rapidly than in other parts of the world, and their ice is melting at an alarming rate.

News that another portion of the Antarctic ice sheet is melting hits the news with astonishing regularity. We have reason to be very, very concerned: if only the West Antarctic Ice Sheet melts entirely, the world’s ocean levels will rise by an astonishing 16 feet. That rise will inundate and flood coastal areas and cause them to become uninhabitable.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
No one knows how tall the mountain ranges really are. Shutterstock.

The Ice Is So Thick That Some Mountain Ranges Are Completely Buried

The Gamburtsev Mountains are a range that stretches 750 miles across Antarctica, and the mountain peaks rise to 9,000 feet. With one mile equaling 5280 feet, some of the peaks are nearly two miles high, which is still not nearly as high as Mount Everest but indeed a respectable height.

What makes the Gamburtsev Mountains so astonishing is that they are completely buried under ice. The ice sheet in that part of Antarctica is nearly 16,000 feet – almost three miles – thick. Studying the Gamburtsev Mountains requires the use of tools and equipment that can take images of them underneath the massive ice sheet.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
It’s hard to tell what the landmasses look like with all of that ice. Shutterstock.

One Canyon In Antarctica May Be Larger Than The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon, located in Arizona, is one of the largest canyons on earth. It is over a mile deep in some places, 277 miles across, and 18 miles wide at its widest. Canyons are ideal places for studying geology, and the rock layers that are exposed in the canyon’s walls enable geologists to analyze billions of years into the earth’s past.

A 2009-2010 expedition into Antarctica revealed a comparable canyon underneath the ice. It is at least a mile deep and, as far as we know, at least 62 miles long. It could potentially be much bigger; scientists haven’t been able to measure it in its entirety because of the harsh weather conditions and large amounts of ice underneath it.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
However, it is speculated that it could even be taller than Mount Everest. Shutterstock.

Antarctica Has One Of The Largest Mountain Ranges On Earth

The Transantarctic Mountain Range divides the continent into two regions, east, and west. This natural barrier is all but insurmountable, as the highest peak is nearly as high as Mount Everest; Mount Kirkpatrick stands at an astonishing 14, 856 feet. Even flying an airplane over such a high ridge, especially given the weather conditions, is all but impossible.

The Transantarctic Mountain Range is 2,175 miles long, making it not only one of the highest but also one of the most extended mountain ranges on the planet. Because the mountains are so inaccessible, studying them is very difficult.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
Within all of this ice is much thermal activity. Shutterstock.

There Is An Active Volcano In Antarctica

A frozen top layer does not mean that there is no tectonic or other geologic activity going on underneath the surface. Alaska, also a polar region that experiences very extreme weather, is home to many active volcanoes that have been known to erupt in the dead of the coldest winter months.

Mount Erebus, located in Antarctica, is the most southerly active volcano on the planet; it is known as an ultra volcano and has many ice caves because of how the fumes emerging from the volcano have frozen. Other volcanoes in Antarctica include Mount Terra Nova, Mount Bird, Mount Sidley, and Mount Terror.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
There are many researchers in Antarctica from several countries. Shutterstock.

Antarctica Is Dedicated To Peaceful Research

The only people who live in Antarctica are scientists who study the ice sheets, weather patterns, geology, and other aspects of the planet’s southernmost continent. To ensure peaceful cooperation among nations that wish to send researchers to Antarctica, the Antarctic Treaty was ratified on December 1, 1959.

The writing of the treaty, which occurred during the uncertainty of the Cold War, took more than a year of negotiations among 12 countries, who were working secretly to write the treaty. Forty-eight countries are now signatories to the agreement, which safeguards Antarctica as a site of peaceful scientific research.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
No one country can stake claim to the continent, so there is a peaceful agreement. Shutterstock.

Antarctica Has About Seven Dozen Research Stations

Approximately thirty countries have scientists that are actively engaged in research in Antarctica at any given time. To support those researchers while they live and work in the most extreme weather on the planet, research stations provide housing and laboratory facilities.

As of 2009, there were 80 research stations located throughout Antarctica. They are occupied throughout the year, though the number of researchers peaks during the summer. During the winter, about 1000 core staff members remain, while during the summer, there may be 4000 or more people living and working in Antarctica.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
The ice has frozen the continent in time, so studying what’s under the ice may shed some light on the time before man. Shutterstock.

Antarctica’s Pristine Environment Is Important For Research

Antarctica is the only continent in the world that does not have an indigenous population, meaning that there were not many people that inhabited the continent before it was discovered. This means that people have not been engaging in any activities there that could damage the landscape (although burning fossil fuels is causing the climate change that is dramatically changing Antarctica).

The lack of a longstanding human civilization means that Antarctica’s environment is remarkably pristine. It has the purest specimens of nature with very little contamination; these specimens have been entirely untouched by human activity, other than by scientists who have strict standards. Research in Antarctica helps reveal information about the entire planet.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
The climate of the planet has affected the ice over time, so we can see what changes have occurred over the centuries. Shutterstock.

Antarctica’s Ice Cores Hold A Climate Record For The Planet

More than a million years’ worth of information on the earth’s climate is recorded in Antarctica’s ice. Scientists who drill ice cores can decipher the data contained in them in order to learn secrets about the history of our planet.

That data comes in the form of soil, patterns in the ice, and even samples of atmospheric contents that reveal the gases present on earth. Studying these ice cores reveals information about how the content of the atmosphere has changed over time, how the earth’s soil developed, and much, much more.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
Different markers in the ice allow us to determine what went on in history. Shutterstock.

Scientists Are Learning What Changes Are Natural And What Changes Are Made By Humans

The earth is always changing; atmospheric conditions, weather patterns, water, everything is continuously in fluctuation. One challenge today is understanding how many of those changes that are occurring today are natural processes and how many are caused by human activity.

The pristine environment of Antarctica, which has been mostly untouched by humans (except for explorers and researchers), helps researchers differentiate between natural changes and human-made changes. What they are finding is that the vast majority of the rapid environmental changes that are occurring today are the direct result of human activity, especially the burning of fossil fuels.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
Working in all of that cold can be pretty dreadful, but the science is essential. Shutterstock.

Even Astronomers Work In Antarctica

To get a clear picture of the night sky, astronomers need dry weather and, ideally, a high altitude. Antarctica has both. Even better, it has insanely long winter nights that, at their worst, can last for a full two months! Talk about an ideal place for stargazing.

The environment in Antarctica enables astronomers to examine the stars, planets, galaxies, and other celestial bodies with almost as much precision as a space telescope! Yet because they do not have to build a space telescope and launch it into orbit, they can conduct their research for much, much cheaper.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
The things that scientists are discovering in Antarctica are amazing. Shutterstock.

Research In Antarctica Is Pretty Awesome

The experience of being able to research Antarctica is genuinely unique. Scientists can look into some of the most pristine – and beautiful – environments on the entire planet to understand problems and challenges in original and ground-breaking ways.

Imagine doing one research tour in Antarctica and then being able to tell people for the rest of your life that you lived in Antarctica! Researchers who have worked there get bragging rights for the rest of their lives, in addition to being able to say that they were a part of something amazing.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
The conditions themselves are very harsh, however, so it’s not all fun and games. Shutterstock.

But There Is A Trade-Off

Living quarters for researchers working in Antarctica are not nearly as homey as conditions for those living and working in other parts of the world. While many scientists can go home to their houses in the suburbs, researchers in Antarctica lived in dormitory-style settings. Some even live on ships.

These scientists can go for weeks at a time without getting any personal or alone time, mainly because being alone in Antarctic weather can mean certain death. They have long work hours and close sleeping quarters, meaning that there is very little time or opportunity for socializing.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
Scientists can only talk to each other, so it can feel very isolating working there. Shutterstock.

Research Stations Are A Bit Like Mining Towns

Mining towns emerged in history as a means of housing a large population that moved to an area to work in a mine that had just been opened. Many of the workers left behind their families, as conditions were too difficult for women and children. Many people lived in tents, and there were very few opportunities for entertainment.

Researchers in Antarctica have some free time, during which they may go to the coffee shop or bar on their station. They may even play trivia or watch a movie together. Nevertheless, everyone is living in a temporary situation, so all of the researchers know that their time together and the relationships that they form are temporary. Furthermore, no children are allowed, so many have to leave their families behind.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
There is no escape from all the cold and wind. Shutterstock.

They Endure Harsh Weather Conditions

Polar weather is notoriously difficult to predict and can be incredibly unstable. Wind and snowstorms can spring up in a matter of minutes and turn a clear day into an unnavigable nightmare. Researchers have to carry emergency equipment with them, including tents, in case a sudden storm causes them to get stranded.

Upon arrival, researchers in Antarctica have to undergo survival training to prepare them for the harsh realities of extreme polar weather. Survival in Antarctica has more to do with braving the elements than learning to hunt your food, as much of the continent is devoid of wildlife.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
Because there is the need to preserve what’s there, scientists have to take extraordinary measures to keep their surroundings clean. Shutterstock.

They Have Very Strict Protocols To Avoid Contamination

Preservation of Antarctica’s pristine environment is of the utmost concern for researchers who live on the frozen continent. Moreover, they go to some pretty extreme measures, including having to send human waste back to their own countries for disposal! That’s right; they have to use toilets that are equipped to have the contents sent back home.

They also have to make sure that they carry out their experiments and research in such a way that disrupts the environment as little as possible. The researchers who work in Antarctica have to make some pretty serious sacrifices and commitments in order to make life there work.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
It’s hard to think of underwater lakes because that means there’s water under the water. Shutterstock.

One Remarkable Discovery Is Subglacial Lakes

Almost all of Antarctica is completely frozen – at least it was before global warming began to transform the landscape. Some isolated areas are not covered with snow and ice, usually because they receive no precipitation, and winds have blown all of the snow away.

Yet not all of the water in Antarctica is locked away in ice, as researchers have discovered some freshwater lakes underneath the Antarctic glaciers. They have surprised scientists and led to a series of remarkable discoveries that seem to be genuinely out of this world. Nevertheless, they are not out of this world. They are real, and they are on our planet.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
Tectonic activity is plentiful, which heats the water in some areas. Shutterstock.

Tectonic Activity Warms The Water

The water in the subglacial lakes is at about freezing but is just warm enough to flow around in a liquid state. This is because the immense pressure of the ice – which is often over a mile thick – is so intense that it warms the water on the very bottom.

Additionally, the warmth of magma that flows underneath the earth’s crust comes from below the lakes and causes the water to warm, just enough to be in a liquid state. So they aren’t exactly hot springs, but they exist in a sub-frozen state that only enables them to flow around and be considered freshwater lakes.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
This warm water produces microbial life that smaller animals feed on. Shutterstock.

The Water Flows Into The Southern Ocean

The Southern Ocean surrounds much of Antarctica and contains many kinds of polar wildlife, including whales, seals, and micro-organisms. The Southern Ocean is full of icebergs that have broken off of Antarctic glaciers and ice sheets, so it can be complicated for a ship to navigate.

The water in the subglacial lakes of Antarctica flows in such a way that it pools together and streams down, underneath the glaciers, into the Southern Ocean. This freshwater that flows into a salty ocean has some impact on coastal wildlife, and the effects are something that researchers are trying to understand.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
Scientists are lucky to be able to witness these underwater lakes. Shutterstock.

The Subglacial Lakes Have An Otherworldly Appearance

The lakes that exist underneath Antarctica’s glaciers bear no resemblance to anything that we are aware of on this earth. Researchers who study them have likened their appearance to extraterrestrial landscapes because the structures and formations in them are so unique. In fact, studying them may provide insight into astrobiology, the field that studies the possibility of life on other planets.

The lakes are lined with ice that is full of bubbles, giving them an ethereal appearance that seems like it is out of this world. They are also very dark and very, very cold.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
These lakes are pretty far down, so no sunlight gets to them. Shutterstock.

No Sunlight Reaches The Lakes

The lakes lie underneath glaciers that can be a mile thick or more. While ice may have a clear appearance in minimal amounts, this dense layer of ice has an opaque appearance that is solid white all the way through. You cannot see through a glacier.

As a result, no sunlight can reach the subglacial lakes. They are pitch black, so photosynthesis – the process whereby plant and some microbial life forms synthesize energy from sunlight – is unable to happen there. By all accounts, there should not be any life that exists down there.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop life from growing; the most abundant life is microbial in form. Shutterstock.

Yet They Are Full Of Life

There are abundant signs of life in the subglacial lakes, but none of the macro-organisms that we are familiar with. There are no penguins, fish, whales, or even plants such as seagrass or kelp. All of life is microbial, and it seems to be thriving.

Microbial life is incredibly resilient and can thrive in some of the harshest, most unforgiving climates on the planet. Evidence of the microbial life in Antarctica’s subglacial lakes is seen in the chemical composition, which includes the chemical byproducts of life processes that including eating, eliminating waste, and dying.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
There are a lot of minerals present in these lakes too. Shutterstock.

These Lakes Also Have Dissolved Minerals

The fossil water inside the subglacial lakes has high levels of dissolved minerals, which support the microbial lifeforms that live there. The minerals include carbon and other nutrients, which affect the chemical composition of the coastal areas of the Southern Ocean.

The lakes periodically drain out into the Southern Ocean and then are filled again by the water that flows and collects together. As the water flows out into the ocean, the minerals flow out and join the salty Southern Ocean. As more water flows in, the minerals recollect. The carbon levels can replenish themselves within 4.8 to 11.9 years.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
Different kinds of ice are constructed due to the presence of the materials in the water. Shutterstock.

They May Affect Ice On The Surface

Scientists have concluded that the movement of magma underneath the earth’s crust causes the tectonic plates on the surface to move. They slide around on the ocean of magma, so slowly that the movements are imperceptible but measurable over the long term.

A very similar scenario exists between the subglacial lakes and surface ice sheets. As the water flows around and drains into the Southern Ocean, the ice moves around. This movement causes the lake water to flow even more rapidly; this relationship between the lakes and the glaciers can actually be seen by measuring surface ice.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
Under all that, ice is an entirely different ecosystem that many of us will never get to see for ourselves. Shutterstock.

Antarctica Has Over 300 Subglacial Lakes

While finding one of these subglacial lakes would certainly be extraordinary, as of 2018, researchers had identified 379 of them! What this means is that they may be much more ordinary than scientists had initially thought, and estimates say that we are sure to discover many, many more.

Scientists have been finding the lakes by using radiography; they discovered the first one in 1970. The largest known subglacial lake is Lake Vostok; it is hundreds of meters deep, 50 kilometers across, and 240 kilometers long! Some areas have higher concentrations of lakes because of their unique geography, which is more conducive to lake formation.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
Some of this microbial life could have been from the time of the dinosaurs. Shutterstock.

They May Have Been In Existence For 35 Million Years Or More

The subglacial lakes of Antarctica have some of the most extreme conditions on the entire planet. The immense pressure upon the water affects the temperature at which water freezes, making them more akin to alien liquid bodies than other water bodies on earth.

These lakes are incredibly old; some estimates say that they may be 35 million years old or more! They have been a longstanding feature of Antarctica’s landscape and have been affecting the ice sheets in ways that scientists are only now beginning to understand.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
The penguins that live there have definitely adapted to their environment over time. Shutterstock.

Scientists In Antarctica Also Study The Continent’s Wildlife

There are very few land animals that live in Antarctica. The largest animal that lives solely on the land there is a flightless bird known as Belgica Antarctica, and it is only one-quarter of an inch in size! Most of its wildlife, including its penguins, is considered to be marine.

The wildlife of Antarctica includes killer whales, blue whales, and other large marine mammals that thrive in icy water, as well as seals and colossal squids. Many different types of penguins live there, including emperor penguins, southern rockhopper penguins, king penguins, Gentoo penguins, and chinstrap penguins.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
The largest population of animals in Antarctica are the ones we can’t see. Shutterstock.

But Most Of Its Life Is Microbial

While the wildlife in Antarctica is spectacular, large animals only occupy a tiny portion of the continent – mostly along its coastline. Its smaller lifeforms include phytoplankton, mites, nematodes, lice, tardigrades, springtails, krill, and rotifers.

However, most of the life that lives on Antarctica is microbial. Algae are abundant, including microscopic diatoms. Some bacteria, in particular, favor the frigid conditions, as they have been found living as deep as 2600 feet underneath the ice. Microbial life is incredibly resilient and can thrive in some of the harshest conditions on the planet, where scientists least expect to find any living thing.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
Little plant life grows there, so there aren’t many herbivores. Shutterstock.

There Are Few Plants

Geologic evidence suggests that tundra vegetation, including some forests, covered parts of Antarctica until as recently as about 15 million years ago. However, its inhospitable climate has made plant life there extremely rare. Plants in Antarctica consist mostly of mosses and liverworts, which are primitive plants that do not have a vascular system,

Some flowering plants live in a few places along Antarctica’s coastline, and they only grow for a few weeks out of the summer. Researchers who study plant life in Antarctica can learn about some of the conditions on earth in its distant past.

Subglacial Lakes in Antarctica are Full of Secrets
Surprisingly, fungi find a way to survive there. Shutterstock.

There Are Some Fungi

Researchers have identified approximately 1150 different types of fungi in Antarctica. Many of these fungi are very primitive, with very simple morphology, low metabolisms, and undifferentiated structures. These primitive features make them ideally suited to life in the frozen Antarctic tundra.

Fungi in Antarctica are so abundant that they have had a noticeable impact on some of the rock formations there. Scientists who study the fungi estimate that they may have qualities and features similar to extraterrestrial life on places such as Mars. Studying these unique forms of life helps provide a window into both early conditions of life on earth and what life may be like if it exists elsewhere in the universe.

Sources:
“50 Amazing Facts About Antarctica,” by Andrea Thompson. Live Science. March 10, 2014.
“Scientists Reveal What Living and Working in Antarctica Is Really Like,” by Jesslyn Shields. How Stuff Works. February 2, 2017.
“Almost alien: Antarctic subglacial lakes are cold, dark and full of secrets.” Science Daily. March 4, 2020.
“Antarctica.” Wikipedia.

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