Groundwater seeps in Taylor Valley Antarctica: An example of a subsurface melt event

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The 2001/02 austral summer was the warmest summer on record in Taylor Valley, Antarctica, (∼78°S) since continuous records of temperature began in 1985. The highest stream-flows ever recorded in the Onyx River, Wright Valley, were also recorded that year (the record goes back to the 1969/70 austral summer). In early January 2002, a groundwater seep was observed flowing in the southwest portion of Taylor Valley. This flow has been named 'Wormherder Creek' (WHC) and represents an unusual event, probably occurring on a decadal time-scale. The physical characteristics of this feature suggest that it may have flowed at other times in the past. Other groundwater seeps, emanating from the north-facing slope of Taylor Valley, were also observed. Little work has been done previously on these very ephemeral seeps, and the source of water is unknown. These features, resembling recently described features on Mars, represent the melting of subsurface ice. The Martian features have been interpreted as groundwater seeps. In this paper we compare the chemistry of the WHC groundwater seep to that of the surrounding streams that flow every austral summer. The total dissolved solids content of WHC was ∼6 times greater than that of some nearby streams. The Na: Cl and SO4: Cl ratios of the seep waters are higher than those of the streams, but the Mg: Cl and HCO3: Cl ratios are lower, indicating different sources of solutes to the seeps compared to the streams. The enrichment of Na and SO4 relative to Cl may suggest significant dissolution of mirabilite within the previously unwetted soil. The proposed occurrence of abundant mirabilite in higher-elevation soils of the dry valley region agrees with geochemical models developed, but not tested, in the late 1970s. The geochemical data demonstrate that these seeps could be important in 'rinsing' the soils by dissolving and redistributing the long-term accumulation of salts, and perhaps improving habitat suitability for soil biota. The H4SiO4 concentration is 2-3 times greater in WHC than in the surrounding streams, indicating a large silicate-weathering component in the seep waters.

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Annals of Glaciology

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