Call it two out of three. A U.S.-based team announced today that it had successfully retrieved its first samples of sediment and water from the Whillans Ice Stream, a water body sealed nearly a kilometer below the Antarctic ice. The team is the second of three research groups this season to achieve its goal of retrieving samples from some of the continent's mysterious buried waters.
It's been a busy research season on the polar continent, with three separate groups attempting to bring back evidence of living organisms from lakes that sit deep beneath the ice. In December, a British Antarctic Survey team seeking to penetrate subglacial Lake Ellsworth was forced to pull the plug on its mission due to technical problems. Earlier this month, a Russian team nabbed its first sample from subglacial Lake Vostok.
Now, the U.S. team is ending the season on a high note. Unlike Lake Vostok and Lake Ellsworth, the Whillans Ice Stream has remained in constant contact with the Southern Ocean, flushing out every few years. The interdisciplinary project is looking for subglacial microbial life, and also studying the continent's climate history and ice sheet dynamics. The samples of sediment and basal ice from beneath the water are expected to help scientists understand whether subglacial lakes act to stabilize or destabilize the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
The field team successfully completed an overland traverse of more than 1000 kilometers to the Whillans site on 13 January and began hot-water drilling last week. Today, after drilling through 800 meters of ice, the researchers successfully collected their samples.