Huge Freshwater Aquifer Has Been Found under the Atlantic Ocean

A team of researchers has uncovered an aquifer with freshwater that may date back to the last Ice Age.
Fabienne Lang

A massive freshwater sea has been discovered off the North East coast of the US, beneath the Atlantic Ocean no less. 

The exact size of this aquifer, meaning a layer of rock which contains and permeates water, is still unknown. However, what the team of researchers does know that is at least spans the length of Massachusetts to New Jersey - nearly 220 miles.

Huge Freshwater Aquifer Has Been Found under the Atlantic Ocean
The yellow hatched area shows where the giant aquifer is located. Source: Gustafson et al./Scientific Reports

This makes it, possibly, the largest aquifer known yet. 

What's more, the water may date back to the Ice Age, according to the researchers. The term 'fresh' water takes a new meaning here. 


How did the discovery occur?

Oil companies have been drilling in the area, at least since the 1970s. These companies, in fact, suggested freshwater may be beneath the Ocean, as they had discovered pockets of it when drilling. 

Co-researcher, Kerry Key, a geophysicist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in New York, initially started the research by helping these oil companies to discover what they were looking for, oil hotspots.

He did so by using electromagnetic imaging of the subseafloor (similar to how an X-ray imaging bones). 

Huge Freshwater Aquifer Has Been Found under the Atlantic Ocean
This conceptual model shows how offshore groundwater feeds the aquifer. Source: Gustafson et al./Scientific Reports

Now, nearly 20 years later, Key decided to tweak the technology to find aquifers with freshwater deposits.

Key and co-researcher, Rob Evans, a senior scientist of geology and geophysics at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spent ten days at sea taking measurements, off the East Coast of the US. 

The researchers dropped instruments to the seafloor to measure electromagnetic fields, and a tool towed behind the ship emitted artificial electromagnetic pulses to gauge seafloor reactions.

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By using these methods, the team was able to distinguish where the non-salty water was held. 

Is this water usable?

According to the team of researchers, the water, dating back to the Ice Age, is not stagnant. 

The belief is that the water is fed by subterranean runoff from the land. The water is then pumped towards the sea by the rising and falling pressures of the tides, said Key. 

The aquifer, according to Key, is freshest by the land and becomes saltier, the further out to sea it goes. 

The water would have to be desalinated in order for it to be usable.

Even though the East Coast does not lack in freshwater, this discovery could prove useful for the West Coast's more arid, and at times, drought-stricken states, and also further afield in places like Africa and Australia. 

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