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Feb 21, 2013 12:42 PM by Suzanne Philippus

WISSARD project explores subglacial lake (Antarctica Special Assignment: Part 4)

Under the Antarctic summer sun, scientists successfully drilled through 2,600 feet of ice into subglacial Lake Whillans.

The Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling project, known as WISSARD, is led by Montana State University scientist, John Priscu.

"It's going down through the water column, and this is open, water is flowing through, when it reaches the bottom. Snap!" Dr. Ross Powell, WISSARD group leader, said.

A snap from the multi-corer means scientists are finally able to get a sterile sample from under the Antarctic ice.

"The WISSARD project is designed to get into a subglacial lake underneath the west Antarctic ice sheet," Powell said.

It took two years to build this state-of-the art hot water drill, which, is a complex array of tanks, hoses, pumps and filters forming a closed-loop system.

"We have a hose cleaning system that'll mount in the air in front of us that will, that will have compressed air and hot water that will go around the hose and clean it," Dr. Frank Rack of the WISSARD engineering team said.

The drill system is housed in multiple shipping containers situated on large sleds; sleds necessary for the 628-mile, two-week, traverse from McMurdo Station to Lake Whillans.

"In order to understand the stability of the whole ice sheet and its interaction with the ocean and with the atmosphere, we really need to get some direct measurements at the very base of the ice sheet," Dr. Reed Scherer, WISSARD scientist said.

This is the first time scientists have been able to drill through the ice cleanly, and scientists are hoping for another discovery.

"If we find there's life beneath the ice will be one of the first expeditions to do that," Dr. Mark Skidmore, WISSARD scientist, said.

Partial testing of the core samples began immediately, while other samples were saved for future use.

Find out more at the links below:

Traverse footage provided by the National Science Foundation.

Several Montana State University scientists recently returned from the summer research season in Antarctica. MTN reporter Suzanne Philippus was on special assignment and shares a rare glimpse of what takes place at the bottom of the world.


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