WISSARD Team Retreives Samples From Subglacial Antarctic Lake
January 29, 2013

WISSARD Team Retreives Samples From Subglacial Antarctic Lake

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Update 1 (January 29, 2013):

A National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded research team has successfully drilled through 2,600 feet of ice in Antarctica on January 28 to reach subglacial Lake Whillans. Just a day later and the team said they have pulled up the first water and sediment samples from the depths of the under-ice lake that have been isolated for thousands of years.

The Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling project (WISSARD) pulled up samples that may contain microscopic life that has evolved uniquely in the cold, dark, extreme environment of the subglacial playground. This body of water, which lacks light and nutrients from outside sources, could yield clues as to how life can survive in such inhospitable environments, such as others found on Earth and those worlds away.

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

NSF, which manages the US Antarctic Program (USAP), provided more than $10 million in grants as part of the agency´s International Polar Year portfolio to support the WISSARD science and development of related technologies.

Additional funding and support has come from NASA´s Cryospheric Sciences Program, the NOAA, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

The WISSARD team said they will now process the samples they have collected in hopes of answering many questions related to the structure and function of subglacial microbial life, climate history and contemporary ice-sheet dynamics. While the team will analyze some of the samples at a makeshift lab at the retrieval site, the rest will be carefully prepared for shipment to numerous labs in the states and elsewhere for more detailed analysis over the next several weeks to months.

Original Story (January 28, 2013):

One month after a British Antarctic Survey (BAS) mission to drill through two miles of ice to reach Antarctica´s Lake Ellsworth ended in failure, an American team accomplished a similar feat on the southeastern edge of the continent, near the Ross Sea.

Team members from WISSARD breached Antarctica´s Lake Whillans on January 28, 2013, becoming only the second country to drill through the southern continent´s ice sheet to reach a subglacial lake. The first country to do so was Russia, whose scientists drilled to Lake Vostok last February.

The Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) team implemented a hot-water drill to melt a 12-inch-diameter hole through the ice sheet. The team announced the breakthrough on their website:

“Good news from the WISSARD Field Camp!! Sensors on the hot water drill show a water pressure change, indicating that the borehole has connected with the lake. Verification awaits visual images from a down-borehole camera this evening. We are excited about the latest developments at the lake!”

Shortly after the lake was breached, the team sent down a camera to verify the breakthrough. Now that verification has been made, the next goal is to lower various sampling tools and sensors into the lake to study its properties and environment.

Some of the samples will be assessed at a makeshift lab set up at the drill site, while others will be shipped back to the States where partner universities and research labs will make more detailed analyses.

A blog on the WISSARD site said the thickness of the overlying ice was about 2,627 feet, which uniformly agreed with seismic imaging estimates.

Lake Whillans is one of more than 300 large bodies of water that have been identified under Antarctica´s ice sheet. These bodies of water are kept liquid by geothermal heat and pressure, and are part of a vast and dynamic hydrological network that operates deep beneath the ice sheet.

Some of these bodies of water are connected, and may exchange water between them. But others are completely cut off, isolated from outside contamination. It is bodies of water such as these that are gaining the most attention, as scientists formulate hypotheses that microorganisms previously unknown to science may be lurking in the dark reaches of the subglacial world.

Scientists are also keen on studying these under-ice lakes to better understand the hydrological systems at work, as vast amounts of liquid water must influence movement of the ice sheet in some way. These studies will also give them better understanding of the ice sheet´s long-term stability in a warming world.

These under-ice environments may also provide invaluable insight into the habitability of some moons in the solar system. One such moon, Jupiter´s Europa, has large volumes of liquid water beneath an icy crust. Astrobiologists think moons, such as Europa, hold promise in the hunt for extra-terrestrial microorganisms.

Image Below: Image Caption: Crew of the WISSARD ice-drilling project in Antarctica. Credit: Wissard.org