A team of scientists recently reported finding an ancient pocket of water flowing nearly two miles beneath the surface of the Earth. A member of the team Barbara Sherwood Lollar has admitted tasting the water and describes it as "terribly salty."
The water dating back billions of years may predate the emergence of complex life forms on Earth and may give clues about the origin of life. It was found flowing through fractures in 2.7-billion-year-old sulphide deposits in a copper and zinc mine near Timmins, Ontario, about 7,875 feet beneath the Earth's surface.
According to the team of scientists in a paper titled "Deep fracture fluids isolated in the crust since the Precambrian era," published in the journal Nature on May 15, 2013, the "fluids... can be billions of years old and preserve a record of the fluid chemistry and environment at the time of mineralization."
The team of scientists from the universities of Manchester, Lancaster, Toronto and McMaster, analyzing the water isolated beneath the surface of the Earth for billions of years have described it as being like "trapped time capsules."
The scientists say the water is at least 1.5 billion years old and may be even much older, dating back to the time of the formation of the rocks holding it. Nature reports that the scientists were able to determine that the water was at least 1.5 billion years old based on an analysis of the isotopes of natural gases in the water.
According to Barbara Sherwood Lollar, an Earth sciences professor at the University of Toronto, the water may yield clues to scientists about "the atmosphere 2.7 billion years ago, and about the fluids that formed the valuable ore deposits that are the foundation of Canada’s mineral wealth."
Lollar tasted the water out of scientific curiosity and described it as "terribly salty." In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, she described the physical properties of the ancient water and mentioned that it was salty. She admitted she knows that water is "terribly salty" because she has tasted it. She said: "I have to admit I have tasted it from time to time. It tastes terrible. It is much saltier than seawater."
Describing the taste bud experience of the "primeval soup," Lollar told the Los Angeles Times: "What jumps out at you first is the saltiness. Because of the reactions between the water and the rock, it is extremely salty. It is more viscous than tap water. It has the consistency of a very light maple syrup. It doesn't have color when it comes out, but as soon as it comes into contact with oxygen it turns an orangy color because the minerals in it begin to form -- especially the iron."
She added: "You would definitely not want to drink this stuff."
She explained that tasting the water was a quick and ready way of telling the relative age of samples because the oldest are the saltiest.
Concerning the possibility of life in the water, she told LA Times: "The water has the same kind of energy that supports the microbial life found near deep-sea vents and in the South African gold mine. We have shown these waters are habitable. The next question is whether or not they are inhabited..."
The researchers believe that the similarity between the rocks in the Canadian mine and those on Mars may point to similar pockets of water capable of sustaining life deep under the Martian surface. The researchers say that the water, the oldest known on Earth, contains chemicals that are known to support organisms in the absence of sunlight.
The project leader Chris Ballentine, geochemist at the University of Manchester, said: "Our finding is of huge interest to researchers who want to understand how microbes evolve in isolation, and is central to the whole question of the origin of life, the sustainability of life, and life in extreme environments and on other planets."
According to Lollar, large regions of Mars consist of terrain similar to the Canadian Precambrian Shield. She said: "The ancient waters of the Canadian Shield contain abundant chemicals that we know microbes can use as energy in the absence of sunlight-driven photosynthesis. This shows that ancient rocks have the potential to support life and this could be the case whether they are three km below the Earth’s surface or below the surface of Mars."
Dr Greg Holland of Lancaster University, 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."
The water which issues from rock in the mine shaft at the rate of nearly two liters per minute is older but has similar characteristics to water estimated to be millions of years old found flowing from a gold mine about 1.7 miles below ground in South Africa. The South African ancient water has been shown to support microbes.
According to Nature, scientists have previously found tiny pockets of water in minerals billions of years old but this is the first time that a source of free-flowing water passing through cracks and pores in Earth’s crust and which has been isolated for more than tens of millions of years has been found.
Lollar said: "Our discovery establishes that ancient fluids, hitherto thought to have survived only in microscopic fluid inclusions trapped in the rocks, may instead still flow from ancient fractures."