BOZEMAN — A group of Montana State University researchers and their national and international team have been awarded a $1 million National Science Foundation grant to study a previously unexplored lake buried deep beneath Antarctica's ice sheet.
The funding, which was announced Aug. 31, will enable the researchers to travel to a remote part of Antarctica, where they will drill through roughly 4,000 feet of glacial ice to reach one of the continent's subglacial lakes, and, among other things, sample water and sediment. The three-year project, called Subglacial Antarctic Lakes Scientific Access (SALSA), could significantly advance understanding of Antarctica's sub-ice ecosystems.
"We know more about Mars than we do about subglacial Antarctica," said John Priscu, a professor in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences in MSU's College of Agriculture and SALSA's chief scientist. "It's a big part of our planet that we've barely scratched the surface of."
Antarctica is home to an estimated 400 subglacial lakes, some of which "haven't had a breath of air or seen a ray of sunlight in 15 million years," Priscu said. Little more than a decade ago, the cold, isolated water bodies were thought to be incapable of supporting even primitive life, he added.
The SALSA project will build on the results from a 2013 Priscu-led Antarctic expedition, called WISSARD, in which researchers, including Mark Skidmore, an associate professor in the Department of Earth Sciences in MSU's College of Letters and Science, drilled through 2,600 feet of ice and discovered diverse microorganisms inhabiting Subglacial Lake Whillans, producing the first definitive evidence of life in Antarctica's sub-ice environment.
"So far, we have a sample size of one," Priscu said. Much more research is needed to broaden understanding of the subglacial lifeforms and the ecosystem that supports them, he said.
"It’s exciting to see John’s pioneering work expand to exploring an additional Antarctic lake, so that more can be learned about how these organisms interact with their surroundings to survive," said Tracy Sterling, head of MSU's Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences.
The lake targeted by the SALSA project, Subglacial Lake Mercer, receives some of its water from East Antarctica, a distinct hydrological region that may harbor conditions different from those of Subglacial Lake Whillans, according to Priscu.
Penetrating the ice using a hot-water drill will also provide opportunities to study how subglacial lakes affect the movement of Antarctica's massive ice sheets.
"It's something that's been guessed at for a long time using remote sensing," Priscu said.
The team also plans to use a camera-equipped, remotely operated vehicle to navigate the sub-ice body of water.
"This will be the first time that we'll have any images of what a subglacial lake really looks like," Skidmore said.
Kathy Kasic, SALSA team filmmaker and assistant teaching professor in MSU's School of Film and Photography in the College of Arts and Architecture, will use those images, plus film footage and photography during the team's field expedition, which is scheduled for the 2017-2018 Antarctic field season, to produce a variety of media intended for public education and outreach.
The SALSA team includes John Dore, associate research professor in MSU's Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, several MSU undergraduate students, graduate students and postdoctoral scientists. The MSU team will be joined by researchers from six U.S. institutions, Italy, South Korea and the United Kingdom. The project's total budget is $3.8 million.
Priscu and his team are currently planning the Antarctic expedition, which will involve transporting about one million pounds of equipment across hundreds of miles of barren ice, navigating crevasses in subzero temperatures.
"Now the real work begins," Priscu said.
Contact: Jenny Lavey, communications director, MSU College of Agriculture, (406) 994-7866 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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