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US research team is first to sample sub-ice-sheet Antarctic lake

30 January 2013

A National Science Foundation (NSF) funded research team has successfully drilled through 800m of Antarctic ice to reach a subglacial lake.

An image from the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling project (WISSARD) borehole camera is shown here (photo credit: The Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling Project)

Scientists and drillers with the interdisciplinary Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling project (WISSARD) announced on Monday (January 28) that they had used a customised clean hot-water drill to directly obtain samples from the waters and sediments of subglacial Lake Whillans.

The samples may contain microscopic life that has evolved uniquely to survive in conditions of extreme cold and lack of light and nutrients. Studying the samples may help scientists understand not only how life can survive in other extreme ecosystems on Earth, but also on other icy worlds in our solar system.

The WISSARD teams' accomplishment, the researchers said, "hails a new era in polar science, opening a window for future interdisciplinary science in one of Earth's last unexplored frontiers."

A massive ice sheet, almost two miles thick in places, covers more than 95 percent of the Antarctic continent. Only in recent decades have airborne and satellite radar and other mapping technologies revealed that a vast, subglacial system of rivers and lakes exists under the ice sheet. Lakes vary in size, with the largest being Vostok Subglacial Lake in the Antarctic interior that is comparable in size to Lake Ontario.

WISSARD targeted a smaller lake (1.2 square miles in area), where several lakes appear linked to each other and may drain to the ocean, as the first project to obtain clean, intact samples of water and sediments from a subglacial lake.

The achievement is the culmination of more than a decade of international and national planning and three and a half years of project preparation by the WISSARD consortium of US universities and two international contributors. There are 13 WISSARD principal investigators representing eight different US institutions, including the NSF, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The WISSARD team will now process the water and sediment samples they have collected in hopes of answering seminal questions related to the structure and function of subglacial microbial life, climate history and contemporary ice-sheet dynamics.

Video surveys of the lake floor and measurements of selected physical and chemical properties of the waters and sediments will allow the team to further characterise the lake and its environs.

A team of engineers and technicians directed by Frank Rack, of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, designed, developed and fabricated the special hot-water drill that was fitted with a filtration and germicidal UV system to prevent contamination of the subglacial environment and to recover clean samples for microbial analyses. In addition, the numerous customised scientific samplers and instruments used for this project were also carefully cleaned before being lowered into the borehole through the ice and into the lake.

Following their successful retrieval, the samples are now being carefully prepared for their shipment off the ice and back to laboratories for numerous chemical and biological analyses over the coming weeks and months.


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