21.01.2013 - UNESCO Office in Venice

Blog about an exploratory journey to subglacial Antartica

©wissard.org – ice runways

Venetian scientist, Carlo Barbante, documents in his blog the adventure to West Antartica, one of the last unexplored environments. WISSARD’s research teams are interested in whether active subglacial lakes play an important part in stabilizing or destabilizing the West Antarctic Sheet. Scientists hope to learn more about the history of the ice sheet and how the ice sheet moves and behaves.

Over the last several decades, by using ground penetrating radar and other remote sensing tools, scientists have discovered that under the massive Antarctic ice sheets there lies a vast hydrological system of liquid water. This water exists because geothermal heat flow from below, coupled with pressure, movement, and the insulating nature of the ice sheet above, is great enough to maintain some areas at the base of the ice sheet above the freezing point, even in the extreme cold of Antarctica.  In topographic depressions there are hundreds of lakes, both large and small; some are isolated, but many are interconnected by water channels and large areas of saturated sediments, the water eventually running out into the Southern Ocean as the ice sheet becomes a floating ice shelf.

In order to explore one of these hydrological systems at the margin of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet,  an interdisciplinary project to access the subglacial environment was put in place.  The Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling project (WISSARD) is using a variety of tools and techniques to explore Subglacial Lake Whillans and the nearby grounding zone, on the southeastern edge of the Ross Sea.  Radar and seismic equipment is used to profile the overlying ice sheet and the underlying water, sediments, and rock, while GPS stations accurately track ice movement.  A purpose-built Hot Water Drill is designed to melt a 30-centimeter hole through 800 meters of ice, providing clean access to Subglacial Lake Whillans and the base of the ice sheet.  A variety of sophisticated tools will be sent down the borehole to collect data and samples, supported by equipment and laboratories on the surface.  Everything is designed with clean access in mind, so as not to contaminate this previously unexplored environment, and to maintain the pristine nature of this part of Antarctica. 

The WISSARD project, as an integrative study of ice sheet stability and subglacial geobiology in West Antarctica, was funded in 2009 by the Antarctic Integrated System Science Program of National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs, Antarctic Division. Field work began in austral summer 2010/2011 and continues through 2013/2014. This large interdisciplinary project includes glaciologists, geologists, geophysicists and geochemists, hydrologists, microbial ecologists, molecular biologists, and engineers.

Scientists are interested in 2 research areas. The first is the role of subglacial lakes in stabilizing or destabilizing the West Antarctic Ice Sheet - data collected from this project will be used to improve modeling of ice sheet dynamics; samples of subglacial sediments and basal ice will provide an opportunity to study the history and evolution of Antarctic subglacial lakes and the ice sheet itself. The second area involves looking for microbial life in the lake. The search for life in subglacial lakes is on the leading edge of scientific discovery. Understanding the biodiversity hypothesized to be in the lake will provide fundamental information about microbial life that exists in dark and cold conditions, provide a measure of the limits of life on Earth and other icy worlds, and yield a better understanding of biochemical processes involved with elemental transformations on our planet.

One of the 2 foreign members of this season’s expedition is Carlo Barbante, Professor of Analytical Chemistry at the University of Venice (Italy) and Director of the Institute for the Dynamics of Environmental Processes of CNR (IDPA-CNR). Barbante, whose research work mainly focuses on atmospheric trace element deposition and environmental and climatic changes, keeps an active blog on the expedition. From McMurdo station, he wrote a couple of days ago that the flights planned to bring the scientists, drillers and other team members out to the field site, are being delayed due to the bad flying weather conditions.

We look forward to read more from his blog about the journey and the findings of high importance for climate change studies, to know what types of microbial life exist in extreme environments and whether novel organisms that are new to science will be found!

Carlo Barbante’s blog : SubGlacial Lake Whillans - Antarctica 

Website: http://www.wissard.org/




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