Antarctica, the coldest place on Earth, teems with microscopic life. Tiny organisms dwell on the ice and live inside glaciers, and now, researchers confirm, a rich microbial ecosystem persists underneath the thick ice sheet, where no sunlight has been felt for millions of years.
Nearly 4,000 species of microbes inhabit Lake Whillans, which lies beneath 2,625 feet (800 meters) of ice in West Antarctica, researchers report today (Aug. 20) in the journal Nature. These are the first organisms ever retrieved from a subglacial Antarctic lake.
“We found not just that things are alive, but that there’s an active ecosystem,” said lead study author Brent Christner, a microbiologist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. “If you had to think up what would be the coolest scenario for an ecosystem in Antarctica, you couldn’t make this up.”
Antarctica has nearly 400 lakes trapped under its ice sheet. Some of them â€” like Lake Whillans â€” are connected by rivers and streams. Others are deep, isolated basins like Lake Vostok, where drillers have yet to successfully recover uncontaminated water samples. The new Lake Whillans discovery raises scientists’ hopes that these other hidden waterways also carry life.
“This is a landmark paper for the polar sciences,” said Martyn Tranter, a glaciologist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, who was not involved in the study. “This paper is bound to stimulate further calls for subglacial lake research.”