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Oldest water in the world discovered beneath the earth's surface

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
May 16th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

A pocket of water some 2.6 billion years old recently discovered in an old mine in Canada two miles beneath the earth's surface. The discovery marks the most ancient pocket of water found by far, older even than the dawn of multi-cellular life. The remarkable find has raised new theories about similar oases that may exist on Mars, or on other planets.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Water is able to flow into fractures in rocks, allowing them to become isolated deep in the crust for many years. These specimens then serve as a time capsule of what their environments were like at the time they were sealed off.

In gold mines in South Africa 1.7 miles (2.8 kilometers) deep, scientists discovered microbes that were able to survive in pockets of water isolated for tens of millions of years.

These reservoirs were many times saltier than seawater, "and had chemistry in many ways similar to hydrothermal vents on the bottom of the ocean, full of dissolved hydrogen and other chemicals capable of supporting life," Geoscientist Barbara Sherwood Lollar at the University of Toronto says. Sherwood Lollar and her colleagues have investigated deep mines across the world since the Eighties.

Sherwood Lollar and her crew began to investigate copper and zinc mines near the city of Timmins in Ontario, Canada. "As the prices of copper, zinc and gold have gone up, mines now go deeper, which has helped our search for long-isolated reservoirs of water hidden underground," Sherwood Lollar says.

"Sometimes we went down in cages - they're not called elevators underground - that dropped us to the levels we wanted to go," she says. "Other times, we went down ramp mines, which have curling spiral roadways, so we could actually drive all the way down."

The scientists analyzed water they found two miles deep. Focusing on noble gases such as helium, neon, argon and xenon, the team acknowledged past studies analyzing bubbles of air trapped within ancient rocks.

Since these rare gases occur in distinct ratios linked with certain eras of Earth's history, these samples have been essential in tracking the planet's prehistory.

The scientists discovered the fluids were trapped in the rocks between 1.5 billion and 2.64 billion years ago.

"It was absolutely mind-blowing," Sherwood Lollar says. "These weren't tens of millions of years old like we might have expected, or even hundreds of millions of years old. They were billions of years old.

"We walked along what used to be ocean floor 2.7 billion years ago. You could still see some of the same pillow lava structures now seen on the bottom of the ocean."

However -- Sherwood Lollar emphasizes they have not yet found any signs of life in the water from Timmins. "We're working on that right now," she said. "It'd be fascinating to us if we did, since it'd push back the frontiers of how long life could survive in isolation."

"Finding life in this energy-rich water is especially exciting if one thinks of Mars, where there might be water of similar age and mineralogy under the surface," Sherwood Lollar said.

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