An international team of researchers has found less than 1.2 billion years of water in the gold and uranium mines in Moab Khotsong, South Africa, which sheds light on how life is maintained underground and how other planets can flourish.
The findings were published earlier this week in the journal Nature Communications.
“For the first time, we understand that the energy stored in the earth’s crust can be released and spread over its crust over time,” said Oliver Warr, a research colleague at the University of Toronto’s Department of Earth Sciences, lead author of the study. “Think of it as the Pandora’s Box of Helium-Hydrogen Generation, which we can learn how to work together to benefit the deepest biosphere environment in the world.”
“Ten years ago, we found a billion-year-old groundwater under the Canadian Shield — this was just the beginning, it seems,” said Barbara Sherwood Lollar, a Department of Earth Sciences professor at the University of Toronto and co-author. “Now, at 2.9 km underground in Moab Khotsong, we have found that the outer layers of the earth’s water cycle are much wider than previously thought.”
Uranium and other radioactive elements naturally occur in the surrounding rock containing deposits of minerals and iron. These elements have new information about the role of groundwater as a potential source of groups of chemolithotrophic (or rock-solid) microorganisms that lived together previously in the Earth’s crust. When elements such as uranium, thorium, and potassium decompose in the ground, the effect of alpha, beta, and gamma rays has a moving product, triggering radiogenic reactions in rocks and surrounding fluids.
In Moab Khotsong, researchers discovered significant amounts of radiogenic helium, neon, argon, and xenon, as well as the unprecedented discovery of krypton isotope — an outstanding trace of this powerful reaction history. Radiation also separates water molecules through radiolysis, producing a high concentration of hydrogen, an essential energy source for underground communities that cannot access points from the sun for photosynthesis.