Working at a depth of 1.5 miles, geoscientists have discovered an ancient and isolated reservoir that contains water estimated to be anywhere from 1.5 to 2.7 billion years old. It’s the oldest free-flowing sample of water ever discovered — and now the researchers want to know what’s in it.
The geoscientists are calling the discovery a game changer, and for good reason. Antarctica’s Lake Vostok, a massive body of water located about 2 miles below the surface, contains isolated water that’s millions of years old. And two years ago, water dated at tens of millions of years was found in a South African gold mine.
But this sample of free-flowing water could be billions of years old — anywhere from 1.5 to 2.64 billion years to be more precise. The Earth itself is about 4.5 billion years old.
The discovery was made by researchers working at the bottom of a mine shaft located in Timmins, Ontario. It’s a part of Canada’s Precambrian Shield — the oldest part of North America’s crust. They found the water pouring out of boreholes at the bottom of the copper and zinc mine. The researchers say that no source of free-flowing water could have passed through the cracks or pores to contaminate it.
It’s a pure sample — and its chemical composition is giving the researchers a glimpse into what Earth’s atmosphere was like during our planet's primordial era. But not only that, it could offer some clues about the Earth’s early potential for habitability.
According to the geoscientists, a team that included the University of Toronto’s Barbara Sherwood Lollar, the water contains enough energy to support life (including high levels of methane and hydrogen). They don’t know if there’s actual life in it — but the researchers say the water holds the potential.
The geoscientists will continue to study the sample to get a better fix on its composition and to determine whether or not it contains microbial life.
But it seems that the deep Earth isn’t as sterile a place as it’s made out to be. This research has implications to our understanding of not just life on Earth, but other planets as well. Interestingly, the Martian crust is similar to the Canadian Shield, which also contains crystalline rock that’s billions of years old — and possibly water.
Read the entire study at Nature: "Deep fracture fluids isolated in the crust since the Precambrian era."
Images: Barbara Sherwood Loller, J. Moran.