Toronto – Researchers from the University of Toronto say they have discovered the world’s oldest water – about two billion years old – a finding that could offer clues about the possibility of life on Mars.
Prof. Barbara Sherwood Lollar and her team found the water three kilometres beneath the Earth’s surface at a base metal mine in Timmins, Ontario.
“This water is full of all kinds of dissolved elements, dissolved chemicals and it’s those chemicals that allow life to eke out an existence in these deep, dark places,” Sherwood Lollar said.
The water is up to 10 times the salinity of seawater, she said, and “it’s a little bit yellowish, a little bit viscous and a whole lot smelly.”
“If we’ve been able to find water deep in the Earth’s crust still flowing and full of the kinds of energy that can support life, this has very important implications for the habitability of Mars because it means that it’s likely that this kind of energy-rich fluids are somewhere present deep in the subsurface of Mars as well,” she said.
The research team, which also included Oliver Warr, a post-doctoral fellow in Sherwood Lollar’s laboratory in the Department of Earth Sciences, and a researcher at the University of Oxford, presented its findings at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco last week.
Sherwood Lollar said she’s been working in the field for about 20 years, but has made a series of breakthroughs over the past several years that have drastically changed her understanding of the age of these waters.
Back then, she said, research indicated the oldest waters were considered to be tens of millions of years old. About three years ago, she said her team discovered water 2.4 kilometres below the Earth’s surface at the Timmins, Ontario, mine that was about 1.5 billion years old.
Then they decided to probe deeper, hypothesizing that if they could access older rock, they’d also find older water. That’s when they discovered the oldest known water in the world.
“What’s fascinating about it is the mining community has been aware of this for generations,” Sherwood Lollar said.
“The first notations of this go back to the 1880s, but it has somehow flown under the radar of science and had not been investigated or understood, but if you talk to miners throughout these kinds of rocks, whether in Africa, Australia or Canada, they know there’s this smelly, salty water down there.”
By Liam Casey
The Canadian Press