Packaged samples from the WISSARD drilling of Lake Whillans.
Credit: WISSARD

Life Under the Lake Ice

Source: Nature news release

Posted: 02/13/13
Summary: Scientists have identified microbial life in a lake trapped under the frozen ice sheet of Antarctica. For their discovery, the team drilled through 800 meters of ice covering Lake Whillans to collect samples.

Having just completed the tortuous 48-hour journey from the South Pole to the US west coast, John Priscu is suffering from more than his fair share of jet lag. But his tiredness can’t mask the excitement in his voice. After weeks of intense field work in Antarctica, he and his team have become the first to find life in a lake trapped under the frozen continent’s ice sheet.

“Lake Whillans definitely harbours life,” he says. “It appears that there lies a large wetland ecosystem under Antarctica’s ice sheet, with an active microbiology.”

The lake in question is a 60-square-kilometre body of water that sits on the edge of the Ross Ice shelf in West Antarctica. To reach it, Priscu, a glaciologist at Montana State University in Bozeman, and his team had to drill down 800 metres of ice.

They arrived at their goal on 28 January, when their environmentally clean hot-water drill broke through to the lake’s surface. What they found was a body of water just 2 metres or so deep — much shallower than the 10–25 metres seismic surveys had suggested, although Priscu notes that the lake may well have deeper spots.

Read more: Life Under the Lake Ice — Astrobiology Magazine.

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