Scientists Find Life Half a Mile Below Antarctic Ice

The active ecosystem is below the West Antarctic Ice Sheet

By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff

Posted Aug 21, 2014 2:00 AM CDT | Updated Aug 21, 2014 7:48 AM CDT

(Newser) – A half a mile below the surface of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, in a lake that hasn’t been touched by sunshine or wind in millions of years, life goes on. A large US expedition called WISSARD, led by a professor at Montana State University, has unearthed a thriving ecosystem of micro-organisms after drilling through the thick ice to reach Subglacial Lake Whillans in January of 2013, according to a university news release. Considered one of the planet's final frontiers, the subglacial environments below Antarctic ice sheets have long been suspected to harbor life of some kind.

Many of the micro-organisms found are single-celled organisms, called Archaea, that survive by converting ammonium and methane into energy in a harsh environment similar to those found elsewhere in our solar system, such as on Jupiter’s moon Europa. That has led scientists to wonder whether primitive (but hearty) life thrives there as well, Forbes reports. "It's the first definitive evidence that there’s not only life, but active ecosystems underneath the Antarctic ice sheet, something that we have been guessing about for decades," the lead author says. "With this paper, we pound the table and say, 'Yes, we were right.'" The findings appear today in the journal Nature. (A group of European scientists is already prepping for a mission to search for life on Jupiter's icy moons.)

In this Dec. 1, 2006 photo released by Fish Eye Films, a small group of emperor penguin stand on the edge of an ice drift in the Ross Sea in the Antarctic.
In this Dec. 1, 2006 photo released by Fish Eye Films, a small group of emperor penguin stand on the edge of an ice drift in the Ross Sea in the Antarctic.   (AP Photo/Fish Eye Films, John Weller)
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