SANTA CRUZ -- A group of six UC Santa Cruz researchers is making its way back from Antarctica after nearly three months of work in the frozen wilderness.
The scientists and engineers were part of a crew of 50 that drilled through a half mile of ice to explore a lake hidden under the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
The project, called Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling -- or WISSARD, includes nine collaborating institutions from across the U.S. The UCSC team focused on how the flow of water from interconnected lakes causes giant chunks of overlying ice to slide out to sea. The research may help explain how climate change is affecting sea levels worldwide.
After a test run at the U.S. Antarctic research center at McMurdo Station, a transport team used tractors to drag 500,000 pounds of equipment across 600 miles of frozen landscape and set up camp at Lake Whillans. "Basically we were building a small factory in the middle of nowhere," said Slawek Tulaczyk, UCSC professor of earth and planetary sciences and one of the project's lead principal investigators.
In 24-hour sunlight and temperatures hovering around 10 degrees, the team assembled a drill to penetrate the glacier.
Rather than mechanically grinding the ice, the team used a jet of pressurized hot water to blast through the ice.
The scientists followed strict rules to avoid contaminating the pristine lake below, Tulaczyk said.
After five days of drilling, the researchers reached the water though a hole about a foot in diameter. The team worked around the clock for two days to collect water and sediment samples and take temperature measurements while the water-filled hole threatened to refreeze. "It was really, truly exhausting," Tulaczyk said.
The team also used a 1,000-pound geothermal probe to press thermometers into the bottom of the lake. "This was a big, beautiful hulk of stainless steel built at the Santa Cruz machine shop on campus," said Ken Mankoff, a UCSC graduate student and member of the research team.
The readings will suggest how heat rising from deep in the Earth affects the ice sheet.
Other scientists on the team focused on the life forms trapped beneath the ice. Samples confirm that there are living, growing bacterial cells in the water, reported Chief Scientist John Priscu of Montana State University.
UCSC's Tulaczyk said this finding was exciting, especially since Lake Whillans is "not the friendliest place to hang out, even if you're a microbe."
Because these creatures get very little oxygen and haven't seen sunlight for at least 100,000 years, the Antarctic might be the best place to look for the kinds of life forms that could exist on other planets, Tulaczyk said.
The next step is to identify the microbes based on their DNA and find out how they get their energy.
UCSC graduate student Marci Beitch will make a trip to New Zealand before returning to Santa Cruz. "The WISSARD team has been such a great group to work with and in such a bizarre and beautiful place," she said.
After succeeding through what Tulazcyk calls "a sequence of nearly impossible events," the team will now start analyzing its data in the more hospitable conditions of the UCSC lab.