Components of the WISSARD Project

WISSARD (Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling) will examine subglacial ecosystems in a holistic context.

Cross section of Whillans Ice Stream

This NSF-funded project will investigate the physical, chemical, and geobiological interactions in the subglacial environments poised at the interface of the Antarctic cryosphere, geosphere and global ocean. The WISSARD science program connects 8 institutions across the country and includes 13 research groups using specific scientific expertise in three integrated projects, LISSARD: (Lake and Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling), RAGES: (Robotics Access to Grounding-zones for Exploration and Science), and GBASE: (Geomicrobiology of Antarctic Subglacial Environments). This large-scale interdisciplinary approach to study the subglacial environments of a West Antarctic ice stream provides the unparalleled opportunity to highlight the process of science utilizing novel technology and the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of scientific discovery.

In order to accomplish its science goals, WISSARD requires unique field equipment to get to the field site, drill an access borehole, and sample the subglacial environment.  We will combine proven polar designs with purpose built equipment, as highlighted under our Technology page.

The Infrastructure and Logistics to support the WISSARD science project is provided through the US Antarctic Program prime contractor, managed by Lockheed-Martin as the Antarctic Support Contract.  Specialized WISSARD equipment and platforms are being designed and assembled, both in the US and at McMurdo Station, to support the specific requirements to accomplish WISSARD science.  Most of the heavy equipment, fuel, and infrastructure for the WISSARD project will be delivered to the field site by a surface traverse.

During the 2014-2015 season our target is the grounding zone, where the massive West Antarctic Ice Sheet atop land meets the Ross Sea. This area is considered an important piece of the puzzle for our scientists interested in ice sheet dynamics. The work will help scientists assess the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, most of which sits below sea level. It is the last ice sheet on Earth resting in a deep marine basin and is the most likely player in any future, rapid sea-level rise. If the grounding zone is retreating or primed to retreat, rapid changes in ice behavior could follow over the next century. Work focused on microbial life, biogeochemical cycling, and surrounding geophysical surveys will also continue during the 2014-2015 season.

Our intentions are to have 8 days of science in the primary borehole at the Grounding Zone location mid-January. We will deploy all of the WISSARD tools during this period and recover sediment and water samples from the water cavity some 750 meters below the surface of the ice. We also hope to recover about 5 meters of basal ice cores at another borehole very near the primary hole.