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Oldest Water on Earth Found Deep Underground

The finding suggests ancient life might be found within Earth and on Mars
Related: Earth

A scientists takes a sample of water from a mine deep underground in Ontario, Canada. The water turned out to be 2.6 billion years old, the oldest known water on Earth. (B. Sherwood Lollar et al.)

A pocket of water some 2.6 billion years old - the most ancient pocket of water known by far, older even than the dawn of multicellular life - has now been discovered in a mine 2 miles below the Earth's surface.

The finding, announced in the May 16 issue of the journal Nature, raises the tantalizing possibility that ancient life might be found deep underground not only within Earth, but in similar oases that may exist on Mars, the scientists who studied the water said.

Geoscientist Barbara Sherwood Lollar at the University of Toronto and her colleagues have investigated deep mines across the world since the 1980s. Water can flow into fractures in rocks and become isolated deep in the crust for many years, serving 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, the scientists previously discovered microbes could 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," Sherwood Lollar said. [Strangest Places Where Life Is Found on Earth]

To see what other ancient pockets of water might exist, Sherwood Lollar and her colleagues investigated 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 said.

'Mind-blowing' find

"Sometimes we went down in cages - they're not called elevators underground - that dropped us to the levels we wanted to go," Sherwood Lollar told OurAmazingPlanet. "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 2 miles deep. They focused on noble gases such as helium, neon, argon and xenon. Past studies analyzing bubbles of air trapped within ancient rocks found that these rare gases could occur in distinct ratios linked with certain eras of Earth's history. As such, by analyzing the ratios of noble gases seen in this water, the researchers could deduce the age of the water.

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 said. "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."

The site was formed by geological activity similar to that seen in hydrothermal vents. "We walked along what used to be ocean floor 2.7 billion years ago," Sherwood Lollar said. "You could still see some of the same pillow lava structures now seen on the bottom of the ocean."

Signs of life?

This ancient water poured out of the boreholes the team drilled in the mine at the rate of nearly a half-gallon per minute. It remains uncertain precisely how large this reservoir of water is.

"This is an extremely important question and one that we want to pursue in our future work," Sherwood Lollar said. "We also want to see if there are habitable reservoirs of similar age around the world."

Sherwood Lollar emphasized 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."

And the implications of such a finding would extend beyond the extremes of life on Earth.

"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.

If any life once arose on Mars billions of years ago as it did on Earth, "then it is likely in the subsurface," Sherwood Lollar said. "If we find the water in Timmins can support life, maybe the same might hold true for Mars as well."

Follow OurAmazingPlanet @OAPlanet, Facebook and Google+. Original article at LiveScience's OurAmazingPlanet.

Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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This is geology and hydrodynamics: What we're talking about is two and one-half miles into the earth, where water does not percolate but turns into a misty steam caught between layers of rock-sediments,...and given a place to gather, will gather in an "open-space". They aren't "pools" in a vacuum of earth (two miles into the earth would kill the average "computer-wizard" sitting all day on their ass): the seepage from the rock's age is where the age of water is gathered. I find it interesting, because the earth's water should be getting fresher with the ice and glaciers melting; but it is not )hence, no global-flooding for the century...! As I said all the long,...it's the methane that changes the world...!!!

May 20 2013 at 11:32 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I'd like to begin by saying that some of you are morons....If you're going to leave a stupid comment at least spell everything correctly "talk lyk dis so knun uf us no wut yur sayink make u sown retoddid"

Second...I'm not sure if you're aware of this....but in the darkest and dampest recesses of our planet water can go for billions of years without evaporating.no heat means no evaporation...or did you skip science class as well as English?

May 20 2013 at 11:05 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Its not scientific to refer to '2.6 billion years'. Science depends on observation rather than dating techniques that depend on unproveable assumptions.

May 20 2013 at 10:26 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

smart people, but my guess is 2.6 billion years it would have dried up by no,, i thing someone is full of chit

May 20 2013 at 10:20 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to bcrnbs2's comment

So science wasn't your long suit .... Without exposure to unsaturated air, no evaporation. Jeez. Sue your high school.

May 20 2013 at 11:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

so, the ocean is fresh/new?

May 20 2013 at 10:16 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Does this mean that if you made whiskey with this water it would already be pre-aged? Can you imagine what a sip of 2.6 billion year old corn whiskey would taste like?

May 20 2013 at 8:51 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to dickn2000b's comment

Your whiskey reference is to funny.. lol

May 20 2013 at 11:13 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Marc Verstraete

Mmmmmm ..... so this water probably created GOD ??? :-) You know, the invisible bloodthirsty guy lots of people speak of but no-one has ever seen and who hypothetically had a hippie as son ... :-) :-)

May 20 2013 at 7:50 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Marc Verstraete's comment

Actually, you're not far off. The water created life which evolved into people. Some of those people created God.

May 20 2013 at 11:29 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Don't know how they can measure the age of the water to be that old. Seems like it could have seeped in from the surface over a shorter amount of time estimated.

May 20 2013 at 7:09 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Randy's comment

Didn't read the whole story, did you?

May 20 2013 at 10:31 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

i like water

May 20 2013 at 6:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I wonder if Larry King ever took a sip of it!

May 20 2013 at 6:56 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
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