Hypersaline lakes beneath the Devon Ice Cap

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Some qualities of bedrock around the sublacial lakes under the Devon Ice Cap, Canada
Some qualities of bedrock around the sublacial lakes under the Devon Ice Cap, Canada. A. Bedrock elevation and hydraulics below the ice shield. B. Bedrock elevation and temperature at the base of the ice shield. C. Lakes and salt-containing Bay Fiord Formation (yellow) . D. Cross-section of the area with lakes and salt-containing Bay Fiord Formation (yellow). / from / CC BY-NC 4.0
Two very unusual lakes were discovered under the thick ice of Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic in 2018. These lakes, most likely, are hypersaline and not freezing at the temperature which is constantly below -10.5°C.

Lakes have been isolated from the outer world for at least 120 thousand years and may contain unique life forms. Thus far there are not known any other similar lakes in the world.

Subglacial lakes

Subglacial lakes are not too rare. There are known more than 400 such lakes under the ice sheets of Antarctica and several such lakes under the ice sheet of Greenland and some other places.

These lakes are squeezed between the ground and an enormous ice shield. Some of these lakes are small, isolated worlds without contact to the outside world. Famous are the Blood Falls in Antarctica – a seep from one such amazing subglacial waterbody, which has been isolated from the outside world for more than one million years.

These lakes are in eternal darkness and cold – but there happen to be living beings in them. Such discovery was made in 2014 in the isolated Subglacial Lake Whillans, Antarctica. Discovery was nothing too “serious” – just microorganisms, but, nevertheless, these microorganisms are very interesting to science and our understanding about the genesis of life in general.

Normally such lakes could exist if the temperature at the base of the glacier is above the melting point. Even in the harsh climate of Antarctica, these lakes are not frozen thanks to the isolation of the thick ice layer above them and warmth from the ground – geothermal heating. Under the pressure of the ice shield, the freezing temperature is a little bit below zero.

First subglacial lakes in Canada

Surprising result of radio-echo sounding

An international team of researchers led by Anja Rutishauser (University of Alberta) was performing radio-echo sounding of the glacier in far north of Canada – the Devon Ice Cap on Devon Island (by the way, the largest uninhabited island in the world). This was routine sounding and researchers did not expect to find anything special.

Nevertheless, the result was unexpected. The received data had reflective anomalies which testified: below the thick layer of the ice could be lakes. The preliminary results of the research were published in 2018.

T1 and T2

Anomalies were nicknamed – T1 (area at least 500 ha) and T2 (at least 830 ha). The thickness of the ice above T1 is 560 m and above T2 – 740 m.

But there is a hint. Estimates by the specialists show that the base of Devon Ice Cap is not warm – the temperature at the contact of the bedrock and the ice is around -10.5 – -12°C or even less. This ice shield is located in a mountainous area and the shields are not thick enough to accumulate geothermal heat closer to the surface of bedrock.

When water is liquid at -12°C? When there is much salt in it!

Hypersaline subglacial lakes

Devon Ice Cap lies over very ancient, Archean rocks as well as newer Cambrian – Ordovician evaporite rocks which to a large extent consist of halite (common rock salt). And – indeed, T1 is located on this salty bedrock and, most likely T2 at least partly is located over it. Thus – yes, T1 and T2, most likely, do not freeze because they contain lots of salt.

In order to remain in a liquid state under the temperatures of -10.5 – -12°C there is needed a salinity of 140 – 160 practical salinity units (PSU) but is highly likely that salinity here is even higher. In comparison, seawater has a salinity of some 35 PSU.

Sublacial lakes under the Devon Ice Cap, Canada
Sublacial lakes under the Devon Ice Cap, Canada. A. Devon Ice Shield with the location of subglacial lakes. Black lines – ice divides. B. Bedrock elevation around the lakes. / from / CC BY-NC 4.0

These are the only known hypersaline subglacial lakes in the world. But this status may not hold for long: the salt-bearing Bay Fiord Formation is exposed under some more ice caps of Canadian Arctic islands. Future research, most likely, will bring the discovery of several more hypersaline subglacial lakes.

Is there life?

Hypersaline lakes below Devon Ice Cap have been isolated from the outer world for at least 120 thousand years. It is possible that throughout these long years in lakes have survived and evolved unique microorganisms.

Specialists consider that similar lakes could be discovered on other planets or their moons. One candidate is Europa – moon of Jupiter, which is covered with a shield of ice and has an oxygen atmosphere. Below the ice could be liquid ocean – and… maybe there are some life forms?

Hypersaline lakes beneath the Devon ice Cap are included in the following list:

Cave of the Crystals, Mexico
Cave of the Crystals / Alexander Van Driessche, / free for use
40 unique natural wonders of the world[/caption] This article is a kind of wonder by itself: after meticulous work of several years here has been collected a list of absolutely unique places, where nature has outdone itself and created something unique, just in one example.

References

  1. Anja Rutishauser, Donald D. Blankenship, Martin Sharp, Mark L. Skidmore, Jamin S. Greenbaum, Cyril Grima, Dustin M. Schroeder, Julian A. Dowdeswell and Duncan A. Young, Discovery of a hypersaline subglacial lake complex beneath Devon Ice Cap, Canadian Arctic. Science Advances 11 Apr 2018: Vol. 4, no. 4, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aar4353. Accessed on November 27, 2018.

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Hypersaline lakes beneath the Devon Ice Cap 75.319816, -82.883638 Hypersaline lakes beneath the Devon Ice Cap
Coordinates: 75.3198 N 82.8836 W
Categories: Lakes and streams
Values: Geology
Rating: (1.5 / 5)
Address: North America, Canada, Nunavut, Qikiqtaaluk Region, eastern part of Devon Island, under some 600 – 800 m thick Devon Ice Cap
Area: At least 500 ha (T1 lake) and 830 ha (T2 lake)

Landmarks of Canada

Moraine Lake in Banff National Park, Canada
Moraine Lake in Banff National Park / Satoru Kikuchi, Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The second largest country in world (by size) has plenty of landmarks and wonders to offer. Most impressive are natural landmarks, especially the waterfalls, cliffs and other landmarks in the Canadian mountains.

Lakes and streams

Champagne Pool, New Zealand
Champagne Pool / Photo by Mehlführer C, Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-2.5
There are many factors which can make lakes, sea bays or rivers unusual: some lakes have unusual chemical properties and even do not contain water at all – such as lava lakes. Other may have unusual animals living in them or… legends about such animals.

Recommended books

Nunavut Travel map


The far north of Canada, north of 60 degrees, consists of three territories; the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. Until now, there has never been a proper map of the territory that was carved off from the NWT a quarter century ago. With only 30,000 people and a scattering of settlements, Nunavut is larger than western Europe in area. This map took years to prepare, using 1:250,000 scale government topo maps as a base and tracing thousands of little lakes.

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