A team of Antarctic explorers has successfully completed their adventurous 1,000-kilometre traverse from the United States’ McMurdo Station to subglacial Lake Whillans at the margin of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Efforts to drill into the pristine lake buried beneath some 800 metres of ice are to commence this week.
The team hopes to access the shallow water body using an environmentally clean hot-water drill prepared and extensively tested in the last few weeks at the McMurdo station. Once they have reached the lake, they will deploy various sampling instruments through the narrow borehole to probe the water and sediment, which they think might host ancient microbial life.
“We are all very excited here and trying to get our first flights in,” says John Priscu, lead investigator of the US-led Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project.
Researchers have over the past couple of decades discovered and mapped more than 300 lakes, large and small, beneath Antarctica’s ice sheet. WISSARD is one of three drilling projects being conducted this Antarctic summer, aimed at exploring these dark environments, one of the final frontiers on Earth.
Besides searching for organic life, Priscu and his team will collect data that may shed light on the role of subglacial lakes and rivers in stabilizing or destabilizing the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
But drilling operations in the cold and remote Antarctic desert are risky. In late December, a British Antarctic Survey team had to abandon plans to reach Lake Ellsworth following technical problems with the hot-water drill.
Meanwhile, Russian scientists who last February first accessed Lake Vostok — by far the largest of Antarctica’s subglacial lakes — announced last week that they have recovered more samples from lake water that has moved up the borehole and refrozen on the drill bit. No native microbes had turned up in a preliminary analysis of the samples taken in February.