Confirmed: 1-Billion-Year-Old Water Tastes 'Terrible'

Saltier than sea water and the consistency of "very light maple syrup." Yuck.

J. Telling

Last month, a paper published in Nature reported on some water that had been trapped 1.5 miles below the Earth's surface in Canada for a long while. How long? Based on an analysis of the isotopes of natural gases in the water, scientists believe it to be the oldest isolated water ever studied, at least 1 billion years old and maybe as old as 2.64 billion, slightly younger than the rocks that encased it.* For maybe half as long as the Earth's entire existence, this water has been sealed away, unexposed to the atmosphere.

The next question: Is it drinkable? The answer: Not really, but a sip won't kill you. According to an interview in the Los Angeles Times, one of the paper's authors, Barbara Sherwood Lollar, has tasted it, and it was "terrible," she reports. "It is much saltier than seawater."

Her description of its appearance doesn't make it sound very appetizing either:

What jumps out at you first is the saltiness. Because of the reactions between the water and the rock, it is extremely salty. It is more viscous than tap water. It has the consistency of a very light maple syrup. It doesn't have color when it comes out, but as soon as it comes into contact with oxygen it turns an orangy color because the minerals in it begin to form -- especially the iron.

But that didn't stop Lollar. She tasted it anyway -- for science. And because she wanted to know how salty it was. But because she is a lady and a scholar**, she took this one for the team, and did not allow her students to taste it.

Now onto the bigger questions: Is there life in this billion-year-old water? Lollar thinks it's possible. "The water has the same kind of energy that supports the microbial life found near deep-sea vents and in the South African gold mine," she the LA Times's Deborah Netburn, "We have shown these waters are habitable. The next question is whether or not they are inhabited." And if they are, the question will become what's living there and when did it arrive.

Lollar and her team are investigating, but she says it will be about a year before they have results.

*And before you say, isn't all water on Earth billions of years old, the case of the ancient Canadian water is different. This water has been isolated for all that time, never evaporating, never raining down from the skies, with no contact with the outside world, for a billion years, maybe more.

**The phrase "a gentleman and a scholar" is, unhappily, gender-specific, and this was the best equivalent I could come up with :(  Sarah Pavis suggests "gentlewoman" or "dame," both of which I like too.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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