BOZEMAN - A historic U.S. expedition that took more than a decade of planning, 3 1/2 years of project preparation and a national team involving Montana State University faculty, staff and students reported early Monday that they had reached a massive lake beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
After hauling equipment hundreds of miles across the Antarctic ice and an intense week of weather delays, the team melted holes through half a mile of ice and reached Lake Whillans at 5 a.m. Jan. 28. Researchers involved in the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling project (WISSARD) collected water and sediment from the lake. They will now process those samples to answer questions relating to one of Earth's final frontiers.
"We're very proud of this accomplishment, which is due to a huge effort by many people and organizations," WISSARD Science Project Manager Robert Edwards of MSU wrote in an email from McMurdo Station in Antarctica.
"The analysis of these samples and data, together with the results from a planned field season next year at nearby sites, will allow WISSARD scientists to directly address many key questions regarding the nature of the subglacial aquatic environment under the Whillans Ice Plain, on the margin of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet," Roberts said.
It was the first time that clean whole samples had been successfully retrieved from a subglacial lake in Antarctica, researchers said.
John Priscu - long-time polar scientist and professor in MSU's Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture - is chief scientist and one of three directors of the WISSARD project. Also involved from MSU are geologist Mark Skidmore; doctoral student Trista Vick-Majors from Calhan, Colo.; doctoral student Alex Michaud from Eagan, Minn., and WISSARD Education and Public Outreach Officer Susan Kelly.
A statement from the WISSARD science team said, "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."
The U.S. team tested its drilling equipment near McMurdo Station in December, then hauled it across the ice shelf to the area above Lake Whillans. After melting through the ice, the researchers used specialized tools to collect samples without contaminating the environment or the samples themselves. They also surveyed the lake floor with video.
The lead scientists on WISSARD include Priscu as the expert on life in icy environments; Ross Powell from Northern Illinois University as the expert on glacial geology; and Slawek Tulaczyk from the University of California, Santa Cruz, as the expert on glacial hydrology.
The team that worked deep in the Antarctic field consisted of approximately 48 people, including scientists, drillers and support staff, who hoped that their plans wouldn't be derailed by blizzards, malfunctioning equipment or other unforeseen problems. Although this is summer in Antarctica, conditions can still be unpredictable.
"The weather here is a huge deal," Vick-Majors said before leaving Bozeman for Antarctica.
Priscu in the past has described the U.S. project as exciting, groundbreaking and risky with potential for "real, real high return."
Since Lake Whillans is part of a vast Antarctic subglacial aquatic system, comparable in size to the United States, it 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 started drilling in December, but stopped when they encountered difficulties at approximately 1,000 feet.
MSU researchers emphasize that the three teams aren't racing, but they are 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 were working about 1,000 miles apart on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
WISSARD is largely funded by the National Science Foundation - Office of Polar Programs, with additional funds provided by NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
To learn more about WISSARD and view photos as they become available, go to www.wissard.org.
For related articles, see:
1. "MSU grad students part of historic expedition in Antarctica"
2. The New York Times article, "Deep under Antarctica, looking for signs of life."
Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or firstname.lastname@example.org