A research team including UCSC scientists successfully drilled through a half-mile of Antarctic ice and sampled directly the waters and sediments of Subglacial Lake Whillans on Monday, January 28. This effort marks the first successful retrieval of clean whole samples from an Antarctic subglacial lake.
The WISSARD (Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling) field team is now processing water and sediment samples returned to the surface to answer 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 in-situ measurements of selected physical and chemical properties of the waters and sediments are allowing the team to further characterize the lake and its environs.
The interdisciplinary team of WISSARD scientists represents a consortium of U.S. universities and two collaborating international institutions. This team includes experts on life in icy environments (led by John Priscu, Montana State University), glacial geology (led by Ross Powell, Northern Illinois University) and glacial hydrology (led by Slawek Tulaczyk, UC Santa Cruz).
Access to the lake required drilling through 800 meters of ice using a specialized hot-water drill, fabricated and operated by a team of engineers and technicians directed by Frank Rack (University of Nebraska, Lincoln). The drill 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 customized 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. Such cleaning ensured that the team met international guidelines as stewards of this isolated environment while at the same time protecting the integrity of the recovered samples.
WISSARD's groundbreaking exploration of Antarctica's subglacial environment marks the beginning of a new era in polar science, opening the window for future interdisciplinary scientific investigations of one of Earth's last unexplored frontiers. Thanks in large part to the education and outreach components of WISSARD, the project has been followed closely by people across the globe.