Uni helps oldest water find

Dr Greg Holland, from Lancaster University
Dr Greg Holland, from Lancaster University

A Lancaster University scientist has helped discover the oldest water yet found on Earth.

The record-breaking discovery was made under the Timmins mine in Ontario, Canada.

Dr Greg Holland, of Lancaster Environment Centre, along with scientists from Manchester University and two Canadian universities have found pockets of water that have been isolated from the outside world for more than 1.5 billion years.

The water, which is important for helping to understandlife on this planet and on Mars, was discovered from crystalline rock nearly one and a half miles beneath the Earth’s surface in a Canadian mine.

The water was analysed using a dating technique which involves studying the different types of xenon, an inert gas, dissolved in the samples.

Xenon isotopes can be used to identify when a fluid was last in contact with the atmosphere at the Earth’s surface.

Using this method, the team discovered that the water is at least 1.5 billion years old, hundreds of millions of years older than samples the same team collected from a gold mine in South Africa in 2006.

This younger water contained micro-organisms that had survived on energy from dissolved hydrogen and methane, without needing sunlight.

The Canadian samples are now being analysed to determine whether such life forms are present in the water.

If micro-organisms are present, it would open a window to understanding the history of early life on Earth as well as bolster theories that life could exist underground on other planets, such as Mars.

Dr Holland, lead author of the study, said: “Our Canadian colleagues are trying to find out if the water contains life right now.

“What we can be sure of is that we have identified a way in which planets can create and preserve an environment friendly to microbial life for billions of years.

“This is regardless of how inhospitable the surface might be, opening up the possibility of similar environments in the subsurface of Mars.”

This project was funded by NSERC Discovery and CRC grants, a NERC grant and Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO) support.

In October, engineers from Lancaster University helped explorers discover the world’s biggest cave.

The university used technology to work out the size of the giant Miao Room cavern, in China.