The Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project is an integrative study of ice sheet stability and subglacial geobiology in West Antarctica, funded in 2009 by the Antarctic Integrated System Science Program of National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs, Antarctic Division.
The WISSARD program connects 8 institutions across the country and includes 14 research groups using specific scientific expertise in three integrated projects, LIZZARD: (Lake and Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling), RAGES: (Robotics Access to Grounding-zones for Exploration and Science), and GBASE: (Geomicrobiology of Antarctic Subglacial Environments). This large-scale interdisciplinary approach to study the subglacial environments of a West Antarctic ice stream provides the unparalleled opportunity to highlight the process of science utilizing novel technology and the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of scientific discovery.
The overarching scientific objective of WISSARD is to examine the subglacial hydrological system of Whillans Ice Stream in glaciological, geological, microbiological, geochemical, and oceanographic contexts. Direct sampling will yield seminal information on these systems and test the overarching hypothesis that active hydrological systems connect various subglacial environments and exert major control on ice sheet dynamics, geochemistry, metabolic and phylogenetic diversity, and biogeochemical transformations. Furthermore, the project aims to train a cohort of new young scientists in a setting of a multidisciplinary, integrated Antarctic science. WISSARD will promote scientific exploration of Antarctica by conveying to the public the excitement of accessing and studying what may be the last unexplored aquatic environments on Earth.
The GBASE (GeomicroBiology of Antarctic Subglacial Environments) component, which is led by John Priscu (MSU), Brent Christner (LSU), Jill Mikucki (Dartmouth College) and Andrew Mitchell (MSU), is examining distinct, but hydrologically related, subglacial environments using a combination of biogeochemical/genomic measurements to answer key questions directly relevant to metabolic and phylogenetic biodiversity, and the biogeochemical transformation of major nutrients beneath the Whillans Ice Stream.
Science Questions: We expect the microbial communities associated with the ice stream to be a metabolically dynamic ecosystem, and specifically ask (1) what is the microbial community structure and (2) what is the metabolic function of the community in situ? Understanding biogeochemical processes involved with elemental transformations on our planet is a central theme in NSF's decadal plan and the use of multidisciplinary tools to study these transformations in Polar Regions has been recommended by a 2007 NRC report that states "It is time for scientific research on subglacial lakes to begin". GBASE results will be used by investigators of LISSARD and RAGES (the other two components of the WISSARD project) to cast their results in a holistic ecosystem perspective.
Broader Impacts: As part of the WISSARD program, GBASE is investigating what may be some of the last unexplored aquatic environments on Earth, and which represent a potential analogue for extraterrestrial life habitats on Europa and Mars. Global warming, melting of the ice sheets and consequential sea level rise are issues that impact us all. GBASE will contribute to a better understanding of ice sheet dynamics and its contribution to sea level change.