The more than 300 lakes discovered in the past couple of decades beneath the mighty Antarctic ice sheet have been sealed from the outside world for probably several million years. Today, a team of US Antarctic researchers proudly announced they have accessed one of the last unexplored frontiers on Earth.
At 05.00 a.m. local time, the WISSARD (Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling) field team hit the shallow waters of Lake Whillans, a small subglacial lake beneath 800-metre-thick ice at the margin of the West Antarctica’s ice sheet.
The historic breakthrough has been long in the making. The WISSARD project has been planned for more than a decade and required three and a half years of intense preparation.
Tension had been steadily rising over the past few weeks. The field team, led by John Priscu of Montana State University in Bozeman, and including experts on life in icy environments, glacial geology and glacial hydrology, had set out in December from the US McMurdo Antarctic Station and reached their destination on 14 January. Despite a small delay due to harsh weather conditions they were able to set up and complete the drill as planned.
Russian researchers last year retrieved a core of frozen water from Lake Vostok from a 3,400-metre-deep borehole, by far the largest lake in Antarctica. But the US effort marks the first ever retrieval of fully intact samples of liquid water and sediment from a subglacial lake proper.
Scientists with the British Antarctic Survey who had hoped to probe Lake Ellsworth in December were not so lucky. The team had to abandon the drill because of insurmountable technical difficulties.
At merely 60 square kilometres size, Lake Whillans is a comparatively small lake. But scientists hope that its environs hold clues to the history of Antarctica’s glaciers and to the kind of life that may exist in these extreme environments.
It shouldn’t take very long to find out. The water and sediment samples are now being processed and analysed for any form of organic carbon they may host.