Montana State University

MSU grad students part of historic expedition in Antarctica

December 3, 2012 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


Alex Michaud and Trista Vick-Majors, photographed in the Subzero Science and Engineering Research Facility at Montana State University, are part of a U.S. team that plans to melt 3,000 feet through the West Antarctic Ice Shelf to explore the world beneath the ice. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN -Trista Vick-Majors and Alex Michaud never dreamed when they were kids that they would someday conduct research in Antarctica, much less join a historic U.S. expedition to one of Earth's last frontiers.

"No way," said Vick-Majors, a Montana State University doctoral student from of Calhan, Colo.

"I have always loved winter and ice and cold and ice fishing, but I never would have guessed that I would have been preparing myself for Antarctica," said Michaud, an MSU doctoral student from Eagan, Minn.

In the past few years, however, Michaud has been to Antarctica once and Vick-Majors three times with their faculty adviser and long-time polar scientist John Priscu. The three - along with other MSU faculty members and staff -- are now back in Antarctica as part of a U.S. team that plans to use a hot water drill to melt almost half a mile through the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to explore a massive lake and rivers that run beneath an Antarctic ice stream. If all goes well, the drilling will take place in mid-January.

Priscu -- a professor in MSU's Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture - is lead scientist and one of three directors of the project called WISSARD, or the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling. The five-year project funded by the National Science Foundation involves 14 U.S. scientists from nine institutions.

"As far as being prepared and ready, we are all as ready as we can possibly be," Vick-Majors said before heading to Antarctica in November. "Everything is working as it should be. Plans are all in place. If something doesn't work, it's not going to be because we weren't prepared."

The U.S. team plans to test its drilling equipment in December on the McMurdo Ice Shelf near McMurdo Station, the largest scientific community in Antarctica. If everything works as designed, the team will haul its equipment almost 1,000 miles across the ice shelf to subglacial Lake Whillans. The "deep ice" team consists of approximately 35 people, including scientists, drillers and support staff. Vick-Majors and Michaud will be among them, camping about two weeks on the ice, hoping that the project won't be derailed by blizzards, malfunctioning equipment or other unforeseen problems that could postpone their work until next year. This is summer in Antarctica, but conditions can still be unpredictable in this area of ice fields and sprawling glaciers.

"The weather here is a huge deal," Vick-Majors said.

Michaud said, "You just have to hope for the best and that the weather cooperates."

If WISSARD proceeds as planned, the U.S. team will take about 24 hours to melt through 3,000 feet of ice. The researchers want to drill at least a dozen holes, with the largest being almost a foot across, through the Whillans Ice Stream and the Ross Ice Shelf to sample rivers and lakes below the ice stream and the grounding zone where the ice stream converges with the ice shelf. Lake Whillans will be the focal point of the study. The Ross Ice Shelf floats over the Ross Sea, and it's fed by continental ice streams that flow over the Ross Sea.

The hot-water drill, designed and built by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, contains its own decontamination system. Its filtration system, designed and constructed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was tested at MSU in 2011.

Once the drill reaches the lake, Vick-Majors, Michaud and approximately 18 other scientists will collect samples in a pre-determined order that was designed for efficiency while maintaining the pristine environment.

"Drilling into this lake that nobody has seen before is going to be really, really exciting. That's what I'm looking forward to," Vick-Majors said.

Remembering her reaction to seeing a video of the Russians drilling through the Antarctic ice last year, Vick-Majors added, "It's very emotional. You have one chance. You basically have one shot ... and everything you put into it depends on that. Everybody has been putting a lot of work into getting to that point."

Vick-Majors and Michaud said they first want to know if the lake contains life. They'll be able to determine that by examining their samples under microscopes in a heated shipping container that will serve as their Antarctic laboratory. Then the graduate students will want to know how that life functions. If sediment from the bottom of Lake Whillans contains microbes, Michaud will conduct research to see how the microorganisms use that sediment to persist. Vick-Majors' research will focus on the carbon cycle that occurs in the water of Lake Whillans.

Priscu has described the U.S. project as exciting, groundbreaking and risky with potential for "real, real high return."

Lake Whillans could harbor never-before-seen life that may offer lessons about how life can survive without light and at temperatures near the freezing point of water, Priscu said. It may also serve as an analogue for scientists who are looking for life on Mars and other extraterrestrial icy bodies.

By analyzing the physical, chemical, geological and biological interactions that can occur under the ice, scientists expect to know much more about how the West Antarctic Ice Sheet responded to past climate changes. This is important, Priscu said, since the Antarctic Ice Sheets contain 70 percent of the Earth's freshwater. And any significant melting can drastically increase sea level and change ocean circulation.

Scientists may also discover microbial communities that produce novel compounds that can benefit humans, such as antifreezes and medicines, Priscu said. He said the U.S. team should discover organisms that make a living in the dark and cold and have not been directly exposed to the atmosphere for many millions of years.

The United States isn't the only country that wants to explore subglacial life. The Russians drilled through the ice last year, and the British plan to drill in mid-December. Researchers emphasize that they aren't racing, but they're conducting complementary research in different areas of Antarctica.

The Russians drilled into the 12,000-foot-thick East Antarctic Ice Sheet, approximately 2,000 miles from the U.S. drilling site. The U.S. and British teams are working about 1,000 miles apart on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

To learn more about WISSARD and keep up with its progress, go to www.wissard.org. In addition to several blogs and photos, the site contains videos, science lessons and details about upcoming contests for students.

For a related article, see "First class of MSU undergraduates heads to Antarctic Peninsula."

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu