Identification of subsurface brines in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica, via an airborne EM resistivity survey
Abstract:We used a helicopter-borne time domain electromagnetic resistivity survey to detect and map hypersaline brines beneath glaciers and permafrost in the McMurdo Dry Valleys (MDV). In the MDV, a substantially ice-free region of coastal Antarctica, liquid water is present at the surface only in summer streams, ice-covered lakes with brackish to hypersaline bottom waters, and at Blood Falls, a hypersaline discharge from Taylor Glacier. Beneath the surface, however, water can remain liquid at temperatures below 0 °C (and therefore at unexpectedly shallow depths) as a hypersaline brine. These brines, which are measured as zones of low resistivity in an otherwise high resistivity environment, are widespread in Taylor Valley, where they may connect lakes, subglacial waters, and the ocean. By using surface landscape characteristics – such as the presence of lakes, glaciers, or bare ground – we are able to compare changes in resistivity with depth. We find that in areas of surface permafrost (most of the MDV) there is a marked shift to low resistivity material around 200 m below the surface. At lakes, the stratified nature of their waters is detectable and sufficiently large lakes create taliks (unfrozen 'holes' in permafrost) that penetrate to the low resistivity zone around 200 m depth, suggesting connectivity through a regional aquifer. Underneath Taylor Glacier, we detect similar brines, which are the probable source for Blood Falls. These subglacial brines extend from the snout of Taylor Glacier (where they appear to connect to the hypersaline waters of West Lake Bonney) to the limit of our detection ability several kilometers up glacier where the ice became too thick for measurements.
Our measurements are consistent with limited drilling done in the MDV during the 1970s and radar measurements taken more recently on Taylor Glacier. The transition to low resistivity at ~200 m depth occurs over a temperature range measured in boreholes of about -10 to -5 °C, which is consistent with predictions of temperatures at the base of Taylor Glacier. The widespread nature of these brines may require reassessment of our understanding of Taylor Glacier's movement and the geochemistry of MDV lakes, which have historically been considered isolated from a regional aquifer.