Scripps researchers on mission to explore untouched lake beneath Antarctica
At 5 a.m. on Jan. 28, 2013, the WISSARD team succeeded in its mission by drilling through the Antarctic ice sheet and collecting samples directly from Lake Whillans. The team’s retrieval of clean, whole water and sediment samples marks a first for Antarctic exploration and polar science. The samples, hidden for thousands of years, are now being processed and will be analyzed to help reveal clues about the Antarctic’s water system, microscopic life in extreme conditions, and climate history.
As 2012 wound to a close, a group of scientists started out on a grueling 983-kilometer (611-mile) journey traversing the bitter terrain of Antarctica. Two weeks into the new year, they are closing in on reaching their destination hundreds of miles inland on the Antarctic ice sheet. The researchers are a subset of a larger team that within days could breach an area on Earth previously untouched by humans: the mysterious Lake Whillans.
The lake lies beneath the Antarctic ice sheet. Helen Amanda Fricker, a glaciologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, discovered it, along with an entire Antarctic liquid plumbing system of lakes, rivers, and streams, in 2007. Her knowledge, aided by data from NASA’s ICESat (Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite), has helped guide the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project, a multi-institutional mission funded by the National Science Foundation.
WISSARD researchers set out across the Ross Ice Shelf on Dec. 30. Their cargo consists of heavy-duty drilling equipment that will bore into the Antarctic ice at the site of the lake. Scientists will employ a hot water drill to create a 30 centimeter- (11.8-inch) hole and penetrate 800 meters (2,624 feet) down into the Antarctic ice. The team will deploy a suite of sophisticated tools into the borehole to capture a variety of water and sediment samples. Some of the samples will come back to the Scripps laboratory of biogeochemist Jeff Severinghaus, a WISSARD scientist who is working with biologists to discover how life obtains energy in the dark and cold extremes of a subglacial lake.
“It’s like exploring another planet,” said Severinghaus. “We don’t know the fundamentals, like whether there is any dissolved oxygen in the lake water.”
The WISSARD team hopes such primitive life forms and their adaptations can help further science’s understanding of how these “extremophile” organisms make a living in such a hardscrabble environment. The researchers also hope to find clues about how life may have started on our planet and may exist in alien worlds.
“We don’t know how long the lake has been there, so the only way we can really tell anything about the history and the context of the impact of the lake on the ice sheet is by going in and collecting samples of water and sediment at the bed of the lake,” said Fricker, a professor at Scripps’s Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics.
Just before the drilling equipment has reached its desired destination, Matt Siegfried, a Scripps graduate student working with Fricker, will arrive at the drilling site. Siegfried, who is updating a field blog about his experiences on the expedition, is helping to lead WISSARD’s GPS team in charge of pinpointing the precise drilling site over Lake Whillans, complete with a “Drill Here” sign.
“It’s humbling to watch the science you’ve been working on be integrated into a such a massive multi-institutional project,” said Siegfried. “We can’t wait to fly to Whillans, plant the WISSARD flag, and see what’s living beneath an ice sheet.”
In an odd coincidence of timing, separate teams are attempting to reach other Antarctic lakes as well. A Russian team is hoping to drill to Lake Vostok in East Antarctica while a British group had hoped to reach Lake Ellsworth in the west until mechanical difficulties recently halted operations.
The clock is ticking away for the WISSARD team, which only has a few precious days to fulfill its goal. The work must be completed by early February, as they must be packed up and out of the barren ice before cold and dark make the drill site uninhabitable.
Although she won’t be joining the field expedition due to conflicting commitments, Fricker brims with palpable excitement at the findings that await within the lake she discovered.
“There are so many questions surrounding the lake, the ice sheet, and the entire glaciology of the area,” said Fricker. “We also don’t know anything about the species that might be in the lake. There’s probably a whole array of species in there that have never been identified because no one has drilled into an (Antarctic) lake before.”
– Mario C. Aguilera
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