The World’s Oldest Water
Scientists in Canada find 1.5 billion-year-old water trapped in rock
PHOTO: The old, salty water was trapped in rocks as the Earth’s surface changed. (J Telling)
MAP: The rich mines of Timmins, Ontario are filled with reserves of silver, gold, and copper. (Jim McMahon)
The miners in Timmins, in the Canadian province of Ontario, have known for years that salty water was bubbling up from fractures in the rocks miles under the ground. People have been mining for silver, gold, and copper in the area since the early 1900s. What they didn’t know was that this water is some of the oldest to be found on the planet.
But scientists knew the salty water had to come from Earth’s ancient past, and now scientists have gone to Timmins to investigate. A team of researchers from the University of Toronto joined a group of British scientists led by Chris Ballentine, a geochemist, to study the ancient water. Geochemists use chemistry to study the structure of Earth and other planets in our solar system.
TRAPPED IN ROCK
The researchers set out to determine the age of the water and examine its contents. They hope to discover organisms, or living things, that still exist in the water. This information could give the scientists important clues about how life survives in isolated places.
“We were expecting these fluids to be possibly tens, perhaps even hundreds, of millions of years of age,” says Ballentine. The scientists knew the salty water was at least that old because it could only have been left over from a time in Earth’s history when the area that is now North America was completely covered by oceans. This old water got trapped in the rocks as Earth’s surface changed through the years.
After looking at several chemicals in the water, such as hydrogen and xenon, the scientists were able to determine that the water was about 1.5 billion to 2.6 billion years old! This made it the oldest water ever discovered on Earth.
LIFE BELOW THE SURFACE
The team is very excited about the first step of the research. “For the first time, we found that water of this age can be preserved,” says geochemist Barbara Sherwood Lollar. She has previously studied water deep below South Africa. “It’s a whole new world . . . on our planet.”
The scientists’ next step is to try to discover what organisms might still exist in the water. This process could take up to a year. But if the team can find life in Earth’s oldest water, it may give scientists new leads in the search for life on Mars.
Evidence on the surface of Mars shows that the Red Planet, like Earth, once may have been covered with water. If life from Earth’s ancient oceans has survived beneath our planet’s surface, it’s possible that remnants of life could be trapped below the surface of Mars as well.