First intact samples from Antarctic subglacial lake
Venetian scientist, Carlo Barbante, keeps us posted on the adventure to West Antartica. Following an intense week of on-ice weather delays, the WISSARD (Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling) field team successfully drilled through the overlying ice sheet and sampled directly the waters and sediments of Subglacial Lake Whillans on 28 January 2013 at 05:00 h. This effort marks the first successful retrieval of clean whole samples from an Antarctic subglacial lake.
Water and sediment samples returned to the surface are now being processed to answer seminal questions related to the structure and function of subglacial microbial life, climate history, and contemporary ice sheet dynamics. Video surveys of the lake floor and in-situ measurements of selected physical and chemical properties of the waters and sediments are further allowing the team to characterize the lake and its environs.
The interdisciplinary team of WISSARD scientists represents a consortium of US universities and 2 collaborating international institutions, one British and one Italian. This team includes experts on life in icy environments, glacial geology and glacial hydrology. The mutual expertise by these groups will allow the data collected to be cast in a systemic, global context.
Access to the lake required drilling through 800m of ice using a specialized hot-water drill. The drill was fitted with a filtration and germicidal UV system to prevent contamination of the subglacial environment and to recover clean samples for microbial analyses. In addition, the numerous customized scientific samplers and instruments used for this project were also carefully cleaned before being lowered into the borehole through the ice and into the lake. Such cleaning ensured that we met international guidelines as stewards of this isolated environment while at the same time protecting the integrity of the precious samples recovered.
WISSARD’s groundbreaking exploration of Antarctica’s subglacial environment marks the beginning of a new era in polar science, opening the window for future interdisciplinary scientific investigations of one of Earth’s last unexplored frontiers.
In the frame of the joint communication activities conducted with the University Ca’ Foscari of Venice - a member of the International Association of Universities (IAU) -, and with the purpose of raising awareness and disseminating knowledge, the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe is planning on sharing in spring 2013 the experience and findings of this unique exploration in Antarctica under the co-lead of Prof. Barbante of the IDPA-CNR and University of Venice. Scientific activities relating to subglacial microbial life, climate history, and contemporary ice sheet dynamics are important for the planet and extremely attractive to the public. Thanks to the education and outreach components of the project, the exploration has been followed closely by people and the youth across the globe. Our additional outreach efforts will confidently help inspire the next generation of polar scientists and bring science closer to society.