Montana State University

One of top science stories of 2013 involved MSU in Antarctica

December 18, 2013 -- MSU News Service

This is the first view of the bottom of subglacial Lake Whillans. Soft lake sediments crumbled as the WISSARD underwater camera touched the bottom. The area viewed here is about six inches across. (Photo by Alberto Behar, JPL/ASU. Underwater camera funded by NSF and NASA).    High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN -- A major Antarctic expedition that involved Montana State University researcher John Priscu and other MSU faculty, students and staff was one of the top 100 science stories of 2013, according to Discover magazine.

The January/February 2014 issue of Discover ranked the search for life trapped under ice as the 12th most important story of the year.  It said a milestone occurred in January 2013 when an American team penetrated 2,600 feet of ice to reach Lake Whillans. Within hours of reaching the subglacial lake, the team found bacterial cells that numbered more than 450,000 per teaspoon. Since the bacteria was deprived of sunlight, the scientists believe that some of the bacteria may eat iron and sulfur minerals generated as glaciers grind up the bedrock.

Priscu – a long-time polar scientist and professor in MSU’s Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture – was chief scientist and one of three directors of the pioneering expedition named the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling project (WISSARD). He and Jill Mikucki were both mentioned in the Discover article. Mikucki is a microbiologist who earned her Ph.D. at MSU and now works at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Priscu said Antarctica offers an excellent model to help understand what life might survive on other planets. He hopes his findings will help determine what sort of technology will be needed when probes are eventually sent to Jupiter and Saturn.

The historic U.S. expedition to Antarctica took more than a decade of planning and 3 ½ years of project preparation. After hauling equipment hundreds of miles across the Antarctic ice and an intense week of weather delays, the team melted holes through the ice and reached Lake Whillans at 5 a.m. Jan. 28.   

The project was highlighted in a new television commercial MSU premiered Nov. 23 during the Cat-Griz football game, on television broadcasts in Montana and at alumni satellite parties. The 30-second ad featured Alex Michaud, an MSU doctoral student from Eagan, Minn. Michaud was part of the U.S. team that used 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.

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