Isolated lakes found beneath Canadian ice sheet

Researchers have found lakes that may shed new light on icy worlds in our Solar System.

High in the Canadian Arctic, two subglacial bodies of water have been spotted beneath over 500 metres of ice.

The water has an estimated maximum temperature of -10.5C, and would need to be very salty to avoid freezing.

There are thought to be similar cold, saline conditions in the subsurface ocean of Jupiter’s moon Europa, yet also the potential to host life.

The findings, from a team led by the University of Alberta, have been published in Science Advances.

A Canadian first

The two lakes appeared in a radar survey of the Devon Ice Cap, which sits on Devon Island, in Canada’s northern Nunavut territory.

“I was super surprised, and a little bit puzzled,” Anja Rutishauser, the study’s lead author, said of the discovery. “I was definitely not looking for subglacial lakes.”

Although water systems beneath large ice sheets are being found to be increasingly common, Devon Island’s ice cap was thought to be frozen to the bedrock beneath.

These are the first subglacial lakes to be observed in the Canadian Arctic, and are estimated to cover areas of five and eight square kilometres respectively.

“It’s an amazing finding, and one that I really wasn’t expecting from the geophysical survey of this small ice cap,” commented Prof Martin Siegert from Imperial College London, who was not involved in the study.

“To my knowledge, this is a unique lake system. Of the [more than] 400 subglacial lakes in Antarctica, all of them are thought to comprise fresh water. Hence, whatever might be living in it may also be unique,” he added.

Life below zero

The water in the lakes is estimated to be five times as salty as seawater, allowing its freezing point to be lowered below that of fresh water.

Other subglacial lakes in Greenland and Antarctica contain fresh water, generated by melting at the base of the ice. Geothermal heat rises from the underlying rock, and is insulated by the thick ice sheet above.

The Canadian ice sheet is not thick enough to provide this insulation

Salt-rich water has been studied beneath Taylor Glacier in Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys, but this is supplied by an ancient marine water basin.

The mountainous location of these lakes places them above previous sea levels, and their salinity is derived from the high salt content of surrounding rock.

“It is interesting,” notes Prof Jemma Wadham from the University of Bristol, “that the more places we look, the more subglacial lakes we find. Just like in non-glacial environments, there could be a huge diversity of lake types and life habitat conditions, and one size does not fit all.”

A pocket of Europa

There are many answers researchers want to search for next. There may be an entire network of lakes in this region, beyond the two so far observed, and their size has yet to be determined.

However the potential for these environments to host life is a pressing question, as they may represent a largely isolated microbial habitat.

The study’s authors suggest the lakes may have been sealed off from surrounding environments for up to 120,000 years.

“The probability of life to exist in these systems is high, though the modelled temperatures might suggest that the biological activity would be severely limited due to the low temperature,” Dr Alison Murray of Nevada’s Desert Research Institute told BBC News.

They may also provide a window to life beyond Earth.

Dr Claire Cousins from the University of St Andrews explains: “While the chemistry of these lakes may be somewhat different to ocean environments on icy moons such as Europa, their otherwise extreme conditions will help us understand the habitability of hypersaline sub-ice environments.”

While further radar surveys are next on the list, Anja Rutishauser and her colleagues hope to be able to drill into the lakes’ waters one day, to better understand any ecosystem within.

Such work could, Dr Murray says, provide “a key to understanding the life-supporting nature of such systems which may occur in the icy and ocean worlds of the Solar System and beyond.”

Bao, Pixar’s first short by a woman, is the story of a Chinese dumpling

The story is simple and sweet: an aging and lonely Chinese mother, suffering from empty nest syndrome, receives an unexpected second chance at motherhood when her homemade dumpling comes to life.

Disney Pixar has now released the short trailer and first glimpse of its much-awaited short film ‘Bao’, made by Chinese-Canadian director Domee Shi, the animation giant’s first female director of an animated short .

The veteran storyboard artist (and self-professed eating enthusiast) describes her culinary fable as a “magical, modern-day fairy tale, kind of like a Chinese Gingerbread Man story”.

“It explores the ups and downs of the parent-child relationship through the colourful, rich and tasty lens of the Chinese immigrant community in Canada,” Pixar said in an official statement.

“Mom excitedly welcomes this new bundle of joy into her life. But Dumpling starts growing up fast and she must come to the bittersweet revelation that nothing stays cute and small forever.”

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Ms Shi’s mother, a Chinese-Canadian immigrant, also served as a “cultural consultant” on the film. Her dumpling-making skills were put to superb use, ensuring that the movie’s animated dumpling-making scenes were as accurate as possible.

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Pixar short films generate as much buzz as their feature length offerings and they are pored over in great detail, sometimes proving controversial.

Lava, the short that was screened before the Pixar blockbuster Inside Out, told the tale of a male and female volcano somewhere in the Pacific that fall in love. Many viewers spoke out dismissing the storyline, but its gender representation and even its geological integrity came under fire. Its latest feature animation Coco was also closely examined after years of cartoon stereotypes of Mexicans and Mexican culture.

The question of representation of Asian talent in the entertainment industry has also been a major concern for many. Hollywood has been accused of failing to offer roles to Asian or Asian American actors, even when the part is an Asian character, the so-called “whitewashing” of Hollywood.

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So for fans getting a first glimpse of the trailer on Instagram, the overwhelming expression was one of joy, not least because this was made by an Asian woman, the first to direct for Pixar.

“Very excited for this short because it’s coming from Pixar’s first female Asian director. I can tell that it will be very emotional. Can’t wait,” said fan Abby Berlage.

“Two of my favourite things, baos and babies,” said another Instagram user Lindsey Worley.

One Instagram user observed similarities with another Asian animation. “This new Pixar short reminds me of Huba from Monster Hunt,” wrote Justine Walker, referring to the massive 2015 Chinese hit.

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Others aired their thoughts about the quirkiness of Ms Shi’s edible dumpling baby.

“Cute but terrifying at the same time,” remarked one Instagram user. “What if you were eating soup dumplings (xiao long bao) one day and it suddenly springs to life?”

Others ruefully read the complexity of the immigrant experience into the dumpling fable.

“Prequel: he finds out he is not a pure dumpling. His Dad was a soup dumpling so he doesn’t quite identify with either. Instead, he wants to be a gyoza,” Tracy Almeda-Singian posted on Twitter.

Reporting by the BBC’s Heather Chen.