Meanwhile, geologists and glaciologists are eager to learn more about water transport and ice dynamics beneath the frozen Antarctic surface. Lake Whillans lies beneath a 66-foot (20-meter) wide ice stream that moves about a meter per day, as opposed to something like a meter per year for the surrounding icecap. Little is known about the possible relation between ice streams on the surface and subglacial river systems, which have only been discovered — and charted through radar — over the past couple of decades.
"Lake Whillans is just one of a few hundred interconnected lakes," said Powell, "and radar observations have revealed that it fills and drains in a five-to-10-year cycle. We want to find out what causes these cycles. And knowing more about ice dynamics is important to better understand the effects global warming might have on the Antarctic continent. Thanks to WISSARD, we will be able for the first time to use real field data as input in our glacialogical models."
Even the 66-foot (80-m)-deep test drill through the Ross Ice Shelf, completed in mid-December, was of interest to scientists. An earlier program called ANDRILL (for Antarctic Drilling project), also led by Rack, encountered some unusual life forms beneath the ice, including giant anemones and previously unknown organisms looking like floating spring rolls. "Pretty surprising," Rack said. "I have a museum guy doing the taxonomy right now, and we are writing it up for Science magazine. At the WISSARD test site we could find similar — or very different — organisms. We'll have to see.” Results from the test drilling have not yet been released. (Life on Ice: Gallery of Cold-Loving Creatures)
Planetary scientist Britney Schmidt of the University of Texas at Austin has deployed a small, tethered robotic submersible through the test borehole. Known as SCINI (Submersible Capable of under Ice Navigation and Imaging), it is outfitted with a lamp and a camera. "It looks for everything under the ice," Schmidt told me at her temporary office at McMurdo Station. "There's no reason that I could think of why we would not find interesting organisms."
In the future, Schmidt hopes to use similar techniques to search for life in the subglacial ocean of Europa, one of the four large satellites of Jupiter. "I'm not 100 percent sure that there is life on Europa," she said, "but if it’s not there, I'd like to learn why it isn't there." Again, the SCINI results from the test site are not yet published, but it's clear that projects like WISSARD are already firing the imagination of planetary scientists and astrobiologists.
It will be a while before scientists succeed in drilling through the polar ice of Mars, or through the icy crust of Europa, but the success at Lake Whillans gives them a taste of things to come. Meanwhile, WISSARD will provide geochemists and microbiologists alike with a unique picture of an integrated subglacial ecosystem. "Other systems are much easier to study," said Mikucki, "but from Antarctica we only have limited samples so far. Since 10 percent of the Earth's land surface is covered with ice, we really need more data to understand our planet. Antarctica is an important piece of the puzzle."
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