WISSARD Fast Facts



  WISSARD Fast Facts 2013

Subglacial Lakes
  • A subglacial lake is a body of liquid water located in between an ice sheet and the continental land mass. The water remains liquid because the ice sheet above the water acts as an insulator and traps geothermal heat from the Earth’s crust.
  • There are over 300 lakes thought to exist beneath the Antarctic ice sheet.
  • Many of the lakes are interconnected with water flowing from one lake to another other  via streams and wetlands
  • Some lakes like Lake Vostok under the East Antarctic Ice Sheet retain water on the order of the 10,000 years, while others like Lake Whillans only retain water on a decadal scale
  • The presence of liquid water beneath the ice sheet can affect its movement, therefore understanding a subglacial waterway is crucial to understanding ice sheet stability.
  • Subglacial lakes are pertinently cold and dark environments that could add to our understanding of the evolution of life in these extreme environments on earth and other celestial bodies.
 Subglacial Lake Whillans
  • Whillans Ice Stream, formally known as Ice Stream B, was named for Dr. Ian Whillans, an Ohio State University glaciologist who was central in understanding the crucial role that ice streams have on overall ice sheet stability.
  • Lake Whillans is located 0.5 mile (800m) underneath the surface (this distance is the equivalent of you running around an outdoor running track twice).
  • The lake is approximately 23 miles2 (59 km2). 
  • Lake Whillans is considered to be an active lake that goes through periodic filling and draining cycles, retaining its water on only a decadal scale
  • The water present in Lake Whillans is thought to flow directly to the Ross Sea, making the lake a direct link between the unexplored subglacial environments of Antarctica and the global oceans. 
The Science of WISSARD
  • WISSARD has 14 Principle Investigators from 9 different institutions across the nation.
  • During the Antarctic summer of 2012-2013, the WISSARD camp will be home to ~40 scientists, drillers, and support staff. They will sleep, eat, and work on the ice cover above Subglacial Lake Whillans for about two weeks.
  • A hot water drill will melt through the ice to the Subglacial Lake Whillans half-a-mile below the surface.
  • This is the first opportunity scientists have had to directly study what is one of the planet’s last frontiers.
  • After 2 days of drilling, the science team will have about 5 days to collect water and sediment samples and conduct experiments in the WISSARD field labs.
  • Water and sediment samples will be retrieved from the lake by lowering sampling devices attached to a winch carefully through the hole in the ice into the approximately 30 foot deep water column.
  • Robotic tools will explore the physical characteristics of the lake cavity, while other instruments will collect physical and chemical measurements directly in the water column
  • The project is likely to discover new types of microbial life in the lake water and sediments and will provide information on the importance of the flow of subglacial water under the surface of Antarctica.
Hot Water Drilling and Clean Access
  • Drill Components
    • Drilling operations are conducted and monitored from a command and control module.
    • Water is supplied by melting snow in a melt tank.  From there it is stored in a 4500 gallon holding tank.
    • The drill hole contains enough water to fill 62,400 8 oz. drinking glasses.
    • The hole we drill is 800 meters deep, that is so deep we could stack the Eiffel tower, great pyramids of Egypt, the Washington Monument, The tallest tree in the world, and the US White House on top of each other and still be 31 meters (102 feet) below the ice (But they would have to be really skinny to fit in the borehole).
    • The drill puts as much energy down hole through a spray nozzle the size of a pencil as a railroad locomotive produces.
    • When drilling, the amount of the ice we melt weighs 500,000 lbs.
    • 225 k Watt generators supply power for drilling, camp, and science operations (they generate enough energy to power Scott’s Base, the New Zealand research station)
    • The water used for drilling is heated by 6 Alkota power units (984 kilowatts of thermal energy), all housed in 2, 40 foot shipping containers.
    • A third shipping container holds the main hose reel, return water system, instrumentation manifold and hose washing system.
    • A fourth container houses the clean access filtration unit than uses UV radiation and filtration to kill and remove micro and sub-micron particles (biotic and abiotic).
    • As part of clean access, all instruments and cables are washed with 3% hydrogen peroxide.
    • The top of the borehole is protected by a UV radiation collar through which all instruments and cable travel.

WISSARD Traverse

  • 13 Challenger tractors, each capable of pulling 100,000 lbs., are driving 628 miles from McMurdo to Lake Whillans.
  • The tractors drive at an average speed of 7mph and carry 36,000 gallons of fuel.
  • The traverse is moving all drilling equipment, science labs, and several camp structures.