Photo credit - Subglacial aquatic system. By Zina Deretsky / NSF (US National Science Foundation), via Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit - Subglacial aquatic system. By Zina Deretsky / NSF (US National Science Foundation), via Wikimedia Commons

First let me say that the word ‘alien’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘not-of-this-planet’. Under the kilometres of ice on the Antarctic continent there could be forms of life that have a better claim to belonging on Earth than we do, having been here millions of years longer, yet are entirely foreign to our experience.

In central Canada, where I live, the landscape is dotted with thousands of lakes where ancient glaciers ground hollows in the rock, and water has accumulated in the lowest points. The land surface of Antarctica is shaped by moving ice as much as four kilometres thick. Naturally, there are bumps and hollows and, thanks to the immense pressure of all that weight, and possibly the heat of the earth beneath, there are lakes of liquid water. Nearly four hundred of them, in fact, with more still being discovered, and good evidence that water flows among many of the lakes through rivers and streams. You may have read about Lake Vostok, Antarctica’s largest such lake, which made headlines in February of 2012 when a team of Russian researchers managed to drill down to the lake’s surface and collect samples. News came this week that a new sub-glacial lake, just a little smaller than Vostok, has been found near the eastern rim of the continent. If confirmed by penetrating radar, the site is bound to draw a lot of new activity because it’s only about one hundred kilometres from an existing research station—a lot more accessible than remote Lake Vostok.

These lakes get scientists so excited because they may have been hidden away from the world for twenty-five million years. That doesn’t mean the water is that old—there’s evidence that a constant process of old water freezing while new ice melts refreshes the lakes every thirteen thousand years or so. But the lakes could contain life that old—life that’s been sheltered from all of the changes on the Earth since then, and especially sheltered from we humans. Not to mention life capable of surviving under tremendous pressure, isolation from new sources of nutrients, and serious cold (actually about -3C, but kept liquid by the pressure).

Very alien life, from our perspective.

Unfortunately the Lake Vostok samples from 2012 were contaminated when lake water rushed up the bore hole and mixed with kerosene used to keep the hole open. Scientists still checked it out and found forms of microscopic life that appeared to have DNA different from anything we’ve seen before, but those results are suspect. The Russians made a new, cleaner hole in January 2015 and collected more water, but there hasn’t been much news about the analysis of that sample (dang secretive Russians) and the funding for more research there has dried up. This new lake, if confirmed, should be easier to study, and the world at large might finally get some meaningful results. Considering that we’re still learning new things about the history of our planet by constantly-improving analysis of fossils and geologic deposits, a body of water containing life that’s been isolated for millions of years could be a real treasure trove of knowledge.

Of course, with a science fiction writer’s imagination, we can speculate about any number of sensational outcomes:

  • New drilling releases a deadly organism that threatens the whole human race.
  • An ancient life form is much more efficient and prolific than modern Earth life and begins to take over the planet.
  • A life form is discovered that can’t have originated on Earth, proving that space aliens have visited here in the distant past.
  • Live aquatic aliens from another world are hiding out until other members of their species return for them.
  • Elvis is found alive and well! (OK, only if he’s become a mer-man).

And that, my friends, is how a new lake under four kilometres of dense ice has the potential to affect your world. Never let it be said that there’s nothing left to be discovered. Otherwise some of us wouldn’t have anything left to blog about.