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Massive Antarctic Project Takes Scientists To One Of Earth's Final Frontiers: Subglacial Ecosystems

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BOZEMAN, Montana -- An "unparalleled opportunity" to drill through the Ross Ice Shelf and explore the world underneath it will involve Montana State University faculty and current and former MSU students over the next five years.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded $10 million to a team of 14 researchers from nine institutions who will examine one of Earth's final frontiers, said John Priscu of MSU, current lead scientist and one of three directors of WISSARD, or Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling. MSU's portion of the grant is $2.65 million.

The Ross Ice Shelf floats over the Southern Ocean, and it's fed by continental ice streams that flow to the Ross Sea. The scientists involved in WISSARD will drill through the Whillans Ice Stream and the Ross Ice Shelf and sample rivers and lakes below the Whillans Ice Stream and the grounding zone where the ice stream converges with the ice shelf. Recent satellite data has revealed that Subglacial Lake Whillans, one of more than 200 known lakes beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet and the primary WISSARD study lake, fills and drains about every three years.

WISSARD is the first large-scale multidisciplinary effort to examine subglacial ecosystems, said Priscu who has spent more than 25 field seasons in Antarctica. To carry it out, researchers will use a hot water drill to melt through almost 3,000 feet of ice to reach the subglacial environment. The drill will have its own decontamination system to ensure that the subglacial environment is not contaminated by their efforts.

After analyzing the physical, chemical, geological and biological interactions that occur under the ice, scientists will know much more about how the West Antarctic Ice Sheet responded to past climate changes, Priscu said. This is important since the Antarctic Ice Sheets contain 70 percent of Earth's freshwater, and any significant melting can drastically increase sea level.

Scientists may also discover microbial communities that produce novel compounds that can be beneficial to humans, such as antifreezes and medicinals, and they certainly will discover organisms that make a living in the dark and cold and have not been directly exposed to the atmosphere for more than 10 million years, Priscu said. Those organisms will reveal something about the evolution of life on Earth and reveal a new niche for life on this planet that was never thought to exist. These sub-ice bugs also transform rocks into minerals that fertilize the ocean and influence its chemistry.

WISSARD will also give scientists a better idea of how to search for life on other planets, because subglacial conditions may be similar to conditions on other icy worlds within this solar system where space exploration is currently focused, Priscu said.

"This is really exciting," Priscu said of WISSARD. "It's groundbreaking. It's frontier. It has never been done before. It's huge, a risky science project with potential for real, real high return."

Brent Christner, a former postdoctoral researcher with Priscu at MSU and now a faculty member at Louisiana State University and working on WISSARD, said, "For the last 10 years, this is all I have been dreaming of."

It has been a long haul, he said, to convince people that life could exist under Antarctica's vast ice sheets. Logistics are also a major challenge. The researchers not only have to enter these environments, but they have to do it in a way that's clean.

"We don't want to perturb the environments in some way in which they are altered," Christner said.

Priscu said the Antarctic Ice Sheet covers an area 1 1/2 times the size of the United States, and contains 70 percent of the world's freshwater. But scientists know more about Mars than they do about the world below the ice sheet.

"We have one sample from under the ice sheet, which suggests that there's a whole ecosystem under there that no one has ever tapped into," Priscu said.

Christner said one of many questions WISSARD will address is how that ecosystem would be fueled. Unlike Yellowstone Lake where organisms essentially get their energy from the sun, organisms under the Antarctic ice sheets and those in the ocean beneath the Ross Ice Shelf would need another source of energy. He thinks it must be chemical.

WISSARD will be carried out in five phases, each one lasting a year, Priscu said. During the first stage, a drilling service based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison will build a drill. It will be relatively lightweight so that it can be hauled over the ice by tractors, but sturdy enough to withstand 100 mph winds and run continually for a month without contaminating the lakes below the ice. It's extremely important, Priscu added, that the drilling efforts are clean so they don't contaminate this pristine environment or the researchers' samples.

"We have to maintain a high degree of environmental stewardship," Priscu said. "It may be the most pristine environment in the world, and we want to keep it that way."

During the second year, researchers will ship the drill to Antarctica for testing. Six giant Caterpillars, each capable of pulling sleds loaded with up to 60,000 pounds each, will haul the drill, fuel and other equipment almost 1,000 miles from the McMurdo Station to the Whillans Ice Stream, Priscu said. The route has numerous crevasses, he added.

"Sometimes we'll drive over them, crossing on bridges created by pushing snow into the crevasses," Priscu said.

Testing will involve drilling through the 1,200 foot thick Ross Ice Shelf at a location within 50 miles of McMurdo Station, a major logistics hub for the U.S. Antarctic program. The close proximity to McMurdo Station will allow the scientists and drillers to obtain supplies and modify equipment as needed before the drill is hauled to the Whillans Ice Stream the following season.

"These tests will ensure that the drilling technology is clean, while at the same time allowing us to glimpse the world beneath the Ross Ice Shelf," Priscu said.

The third and fourth year will be "killers," he continued. In year three, the researchers will haul the drill, fuel and their camp about 1,000 miles across the ice shelf to subglacial Lake Whillans. This trip will take almost a month. Once on site, a tent camp will be set up, and scientists will arrive and scientific samples flown out on ski-equipped aircraft. Drilling will take place seven days a week during the field season.

In year four, all of the equipment will be moved 100 miles to a region where the Whillans Ice Stream meets the ocean. Holes will be melted in this area to examine subglacial geology, geophysics and geomicrobiology. A remotely operated vehicle will be lowered beneath the ice to collect data and photograph the environment. Most of the holes will be 20 inches across, while the one for the under-ice vehicle will be three feet across and require more than 20,000 gallons of fuel to melt.

The researchers will wrap up their work and move all their equipment off the ice during the fifth season of WISSARD, Priscu said.

Besides serving on the executive committee of WISSARD for five years and chief scientist of WISSARD for its first two years, Priscu will head the sub-project called GBASE. GBASE refers to Geomicrobiology of Antarctic Subglacial Environments. Working with Priscu will be two former students who are now faculty members at other universities, two MSU graduate students and up to three MSU undergraduate students. The undergrads will work in Priscu's lab, examining samples brought back to MSU from Antarctica.

Jill Mikucki, a former Ph.D. student with Priscu and now a visiting assistant professor in Earth Sciences and Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College, said she will look at microbial community structure and functional relationships in the subglacial environment. WISSARD is her largest project so far, Mikucki said.

"Typically, when working on the Taylor Glacier, a glacier draining the Polar Plateau in East Antarctica, for my Ph.D., I was collecting glacial outflow. We will now be drilling through 3,000 feet of ice for the WISSARD project," Mikucki said. "This is fantastic and exciting."

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