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U.S. reaches Antarctica’s buried lake, as search for life continues

A team of scientists have reported that they have reached a lake buried beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. After ten years of planning and over three year of preparation, the team of national researchers, including many from Montana State University (MSU), has reached the submerged Lake Whillans.

Leading up to the historic moment, the team had to endure a week of weather delays after having to move heavy equipment hundreds of miles across the ice in Antarctica. Finally, at 5 a.m. on January 28, the researchers reached Lake Whillans through melted holes in half a mile of Antarctic ice, completing the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling project (WISSARD).  WISSARD, which is funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs, began on January 21.

Since reaching the lake, the scientists have collected water and soil samples from Lake Whillans. In the days to come, those involved in the project are expected to analyze the samples in order to gain new insights into the formation and history of Antarctica.

“WISSARD’s groundbreaking exploration of Antarctica’s subglacial environment marks the beginning of a new era in polar science, opening the window for future interdisciplinary scientific investigations of one of Earth’s last unexplored frontiers,” the WISSARD researchers said in a statement.

Robert Edwards, the Project Manager of the WISSARD project from MSU, is very excited about finally reaching the lake. “We’re very proud of this accomplishment, which is due to a huge effort by many people and organizations,” he wrote in an email from McMurdo Station in Antarctica.

Researchers have announced that this the first time that a team of scientists have successfully retrieved clean, whole samples from a subglacial lake in Antarctica.

According to Edwards, the work of the WISSARD research team is not even close to being over. “The analysis of these samples and data, together with the results from a planned field season next year at nearby sites, will allow WISSARD scientists to directly address many key questions regarding the nature of the subglacial aquatic environment under the Whillans Ice Plain, on the margin of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet,” he said.

The scientists had been drilling the Antarctic ice since December when they tested their equipment near McMurdo Station. After practicing, they had to drag the drilling equipment across the ice sheet until they were above Lake Whillans. Once they reached the lake, the science team used special tools, which ensured no contamination, to collect samples. In addition, they also made a video of the lake floor.

The whole WISSARD team consists of around 48 people. These include scientists, drilling experts, and support staff, all of whom live in the heart of Antarctica during the project. Throughout the journey to Lake Whillans, the team encountered blizzards, malfunctioning equipment, and more. Despite these setbacks, the team made history when they reached Lake Whillans after decades of planning.