Montana State University

Antarctic researchers gathered at MSU to test equipment for pioneering work

February 24, 2011 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Designing equipment that will work cleanly in the extreme conditions of Antarctica is a major challenge for researchers involved in the WISSARD project. One of those pieces is a filtration system tested recently at Montana State University. These are some of the filters in that system. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).    High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN - Researchers who plan to use hot water to melt almost 3,000 feet through the West Antarctic Ice Sheet were at Montana State University recently testing a filtration system to make sure the water doesn't contaminate one of Earth's last frontiers.

Fourteen researchers from nine institutions, including MSU, plan to drill at least a dozen holes to study Lake Whillans and its rivers hidden beneath an Antarctic ice stream.

Most of the holes will be about a foot across, but several will be three feet across to allow a tethered robot to slip beneath the Ross Ice Shelf to examine the area where the rivers flow into the underlying ocean. The robot -- a yellow submarine called "Sub-Ice Rover" (SIR) -- will also collect samples from beneath the Ross Ice Shelf and return them along with associated data and images to researchers waiting at the surface.

Lake Whillans is believed to have been sealed off from the Earth's atmosphere for millions of years. Researchers think that the lake 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. It may also serve as an earthly analogue for scientists who are looking on life on Mars and other extraterrestrial icy bodies. By analyzing the physical, chemical, geological and biological interactions that occur under the ice, scientists expect to know much more about how the West Antarctic Ice Sheet responded to past climate changes.

Designing equipment to work cleanly in that extreme environment and coordinating efforts in a ground-breaking project that has never been done before are two of the biggest challenges they face in this five-year project funded by the National Science Foundation, according to the researchers who include John Priscu, an MSU ecologist in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture. Priscu - the acting chief scientist on the project - has conducted research in Antarctica for more than 26 years. He is internationally known for his work involving microorganisms in the ice.

Another challenge will be moving the equipment to Antarctica. The filtration system alone weighs 3,000 pounds and consists of stainless steel tanks (one about 12 feet long), long white filters and reinforced hoses that look like they belong on a sanitation truck. Riding the entire way in an 8-by-20-by-8-foot shipping container, the filtration system will be trucked to Port Hueneme, Calif., placed on a ship to New Zealand, flown to Antarctica, and eventually pulled by a giant tractor across 550 miles of the polar ice sheet to the research site. The route has numerous crevasses, and the wind can sometimes reach 100 mph.

Researchers --working seven days a week during the field season - will operate the filtration system from inside the shipping container. They will begin by melting snow to come up with enough water to jump-start their hot-water drill. The drill will heat the water up to about 176 F. As the drill melts through the ice, the water from the bore holes will pass through the filtration system, removing bacterial-sized particles and disinfecting the water with large ultraviolet lamps to make sure it doesn't contaminate the environment or the samples they collect from the sub-glacial environment. The water will then enter an underground reservoir where it will be reheated and eventually return to the borehole to melt more ice.

The researchers want to make sure any microorganisms they study come from the lake and not their equipment, and to ensure they do not contaminate the subglacial environment, Priscu explained.

Greg Switzer of Bozeman, a laser physicist who assembled the filtration system, said, "We certainly don't want to introduce them to bugs and critters they haven't seen for thousands and thousands of years."

To test the filtration system at MSU, the researchers carried out a variety of experiments with water from the MSU duck ponds, fluorescent beads the size of bacteria, and dyed water.

Participants and observers who gathered in MSU's hydraulics laboratory in Cobleigh Hall included faculty members and graduate students from MSU, Louisiana State University and the University of California, Santa Cruz; an NSF program officer, a British engineer involved with a similar drilling project, and fifth graders from Irving School in Bozeman, who came to learn and be inspired by science.

"We are making good progress. We are very pleased with how things are going," said NSF program manager Lisa Clough.

Slawek Tulaczyk from UC, Santa Cruz, one of three principal investigators on the drilling project, said "This piece looks like it's going to do the job from my point of view."

The filtration system is just one of many pieces of equipment that will travel to Antarctica for this large-scale multidisciplinary effort called WISSARD, or the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling project.

Another piece - the remotely operated robot - weighs about a ton. Twenty-seven feet long and about 25 inches in diameter when closed, the over-sized torpedo transformer will be attached to a tether that will provide it with power.

The Antarctic Ice Sheet covers an area 1 ˝ times the size of the United States and contains 70 percent of the world's freshwater, Priscu said. Lake Whillans - the primary lake in the WISSARD study -- is one of more than 200 known lakes beneath the ice sheet.

WISSARD is one of three major projects that will drill through the ice to explore subglacial ecosystems in Antarctica. The others are being conducted by teams from Britain and Russia. WISSARD will be carried out in five phases, each one lasting about a year.

During the first stage, currently under way, drilling engineers will build the drill. During the second year, researchers will ship the drill to Antarctica for testing near McMurdo Station. In year three, the researchers will haul the drill, fuel and their camp to Lake Whillans. In year four, all of the equipment will be moved to a region where the Whillans Ice Stream meets the ocean. Researchers will wrap up their work and move all their equipment off the ice during the fifth year of WISSARD.

"We have entered a new era of polar science - one that will change the way we view the Antarctic continent," Priscu said. "We have to ensure that we do it properly, and the filtration system tested at MSU will play a major role toward environmental stewardship."

For a related article, see "Massive project takes MSU to one of Earth's final frontiers"

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or