Lake Whillans, Antarctica

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Antarctica -

Lake Whillans is part of a ‘cold war’ taking place in Antarctica. This ‘cold war’ is a benign rivalry to add to scientific knowledge of the liquid lakes under Antarctic ice, what life they hold, and how they contribute to the movement of the ice streams. The three-way race is being conducted by Russian researchers, who are accessing Lake Vostok, British scientists who are seeking to reach Lake Ellsworth, and the United States’ efforts at Lake Whillans. The USA has an advantage that they others don’t have: Lake Whillans is only half a mile under the ice, while both Lake Vostok and Lake Ellsworth are covered by ice two miles thick.

Located near the eastern edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, Lake Whillans is also considerably smaller than Lake Vostok, which is about the size of Lake Ontario. Therefore, the United States expects to be successful in reaching liquid water where they plan to perform measurements and take samples. The project is named the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling, or WISSARD Project. United States scientific teams succeeded in moving many tons of equipment across 628 miles of ice from McMurdo Station to the drilling site in early January, 2013. Two massive tractors laboriously pulled sleds containing the equipment to the chosen site. Scientific team members will stay in specially designed tents at the drill site for the short summer season. The team, consisting of researchers from eight US universities and two international institutions, has a number of objectives they hope to meet.

One goal is to examine samples of the water, thought to have been separated from surface contaminants for millions of years, to determine their chemical composition and if any micro-organisms exist in the frigid, sunless environment. Another goal is to study how water enters and leaves the lake. Nearly 400 subglacial lakes have been identified in Antarctica, and speculation is that the intense pressure of the ice above heats bottom ice to the melting point. Geothermal factors are thought also to play a part in maintaining liquid water. And many of the lakes appear to ‘flood’ regularly, facilitating the movement of the ice streams above them. The corresponding Whillans Ice Stream above Lake Whillans is one of the faster moving ‘rivers of ice’. This odd physical feature moves about 18 inches in 30 minutes, then remains still for 12 hours before repeating the motion.

The exploration plan for Lake Whillans is ambitious: a remote-controlled submersible craft about two-and-a-half feet long will be lowered to the lake once the hot-water-powered drill reaches the water surface. The tethered sub will take water and sediment samples and will map the lake and locate inlets and outlets. Understanding how the water flows under the ice is critical to understanding the movements of the ice streams above them. It is believed that the water acts as a lubricant, facilitating the movement of the ice streams.

Some scientists believe there may be a network of under-ice channels that move water from one lake to another. It is hoped that this knowledge will help science to understand why some areas of the Antarctic Ice Shelf are decreasing while others are increasing at the same time. A thorough study of any possible microbial life found in the water will further scientific understanding of what might possibly be found in the suspected subsurface lakes of some planets and moons in the solar system. Just as important will be learning how to best measure such possible life forms without introducing contamination. The objectives for success at Lake Whillans will help to unravel the mysteries of Planet Earth and other celestial bodies.

After drilling toward Lake Vostok since the late 1990s, Russian scientists announced in mid-January 2013 that they succeeded in collecting the first pure water sample from this subglacial lake. The scientific community awaits analysis of this core sample. Meanwhile, Great Britain’s technical difficulties prevented them from drilling to Lake Ellsworth during the 2013 season. Whether the teams meet with success or failure, the information gained from all three studies will add greatly to science’s understanding of one of the earth’s most inhospitable habitats and one that has never been explored.

Lake Whillans will never become a tourist destination: the surface above the lake is mostly indistinguishable from any other area of Antarctica’s unusual geology. Only a trained expert can readily identify the ice streams and ice ridges that make up the landscape of the Ross Ice Shelf. The weather is inhospitable even during the short Antarctic summer. What the scientific community gains from their increased knowledge, however, will translate into benefits to space exploration, climate and weather forecasting. and possible sea level changes in the future. So, excitement is mounting as we watch the quest to access one of this planet’s last frontiers. The entire world is awaiting the first reports of success.

*No statistics are yet available for Lake Whillans. We must await the WISSARD.

This summary was written in January, 2013. Updates to follow.

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Lake Type: Natural Freshwater Lake, Not Dammed

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Trophic State | LakeLubbers

Trophic State measures the level of algae and nutrients in a lake.

An oligotrophic lake is very clear (blue in color) and does not support much plant or fish life. A hyper-oligotrophic lake is the clearest of all lakes, and is nearly devoid of plants and fish.

A mesotrophic lake is slightly green and supports a moderate degree of plant and fish life. A lake's most desired trophic state is generally this mid-point - the mesotrophic state.

A eutrophic lake is somewhat murky and supports a large amount of plant and fish life. A hypereutrophic lake is clouded with algae, plant life, and fish life. A eutrophic or hyper-eutrophic lake can be difficult to navigate by boat - and is often an unpleasant place to swim.

The use of phosphorus-rich and nitrogen-rich fertilizer on lawns and golf courses surrounding a lake can cause it to become eutrophic or hypereutrophic.


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Catchment or Drainage Area | LakeLubbers

This is the surrounding area that drains into a lake, including land, rivers and their tributaries. This is also known as the lake's "catchment basin".

Small lakes at the highest peaks of mountains have small drainage areas. The world's oceans have the largest drainage areas.


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Lake-Area Population | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated number of people who live in a house with a view of a lake, plus those who self-describe the lake as their home, for example: "I live at Smith Mountain Lake."


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Water Residence Time | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated time that it takes for an amount of water equal to the entire volume of a lake to flow out of - or evaporate from - the lake.

Residence Time can be as short as a few days for fast-flowing small lakes, and can exceed 100 years for slow-flowing large lakes.


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Completion Year | LakeLubbers

This is the year that a reservoir was first filled to the reservoir's normal elevation - or the year that a natural lake was first dammed. A large reservoir can take more than a year to fill after its dam is first closed.

The Grand Anicut in southern India is generally considered the world's oldest dam that still operates. Grand Anicut was constructed in the second century BC. It now impounds an irrigation network that includes roughly one million acres.

You can find many of the the world's newest reservoirs on LakeLubbers. Many of the world's oldest reservoirs appear on the last page of that list.


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Water Volume | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated volume of water that a lake contains -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. By this measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal.

You can find many of the the world's largest lakes (by water volume) on LakeLubbers.

Water Volume can be measured in acre-feet, in cubic miles, or in cubic kilometers. One acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre (43,560 square feet) to a depth of one foot. One cubic mile equals 3,379,200 acre-feet. One cubic kilometer equals 810,713 acre-feet.

1 acre-foot is equal to 325,851 US gallons. Siberia's Lake Baikal contains about 6,276,367,740,000,000 gallons of freshwater - nearly 1 million gallons for every living person on earth.

The other - and more widely used - measure of a lake's size is the lake's surface acreage. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is North America's Lake Superior.


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Maximum Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated greatest depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. The world's deepest lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal; that lake's maximum depth is estimated at 5,314 feet.

You can find many of the the world's deepest lakes on LakeLubbers. If you select the last page of that list, you will find the (maximum depth of) the shallowest lakes in our database.


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Average Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated average depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. If the water volume and surface area of a lake are known, an estimate of the lake's average depth can be calculated:

Water volume ÷ Surface Area = Average Depth

Example: 1,000,000 acre-feet ÷ 20,000 acres = 50 feet average depth


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Maximum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's highest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can occur during flooding. A lake's highest possible maximum elevation is usually the top of the lake's dam or spillway.

At lakes that include residential development, government regulations usually forbid the construction of homes below a lake's maximum elevation.


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Minimum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's lowest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can be reasonably expected to occur. Low lake levels can occur due to deliberate seasonal draw downs for irrigation or impending snow melt, reduced water inflows, drought and evaporation, residential or commercial water demands, and hydropower generation.

Some lakes' minimum and maximum elevations are virtually the same. Lakes that generate hydropower may vary by several feet - according to power demand. Lakes whose primary purpose is to prevent flooding can seasonally vary by 100 feet or more.

When some lakes reach their minimum elevation, their boat ramps may not be long enough to permit boat access - and boats docked on shallow parts of the lake may end up on dry ground. In those cases, kayakers and shore-based anglers may be among the few happy recreational users of the lake.


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Normal Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's normal water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level. For a reservoir, this water level is also known as "full pond" or "full pool".

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Shoreline Length | LakeLubbers

This is the length of the exterior shoreline around a lake - measured at the lake's normal elevation. The shoreline length can be considerably shorter or longer when lake water levels are lower or higher than normal.

A lake with many coves has a much longer shoreline than a lake of similar surface area that is nearly circular in shape.

When known, the shoreline miles that we report in our statistics include only the lake's exterior shoreline, and exclude the shorelines of islands located within a lake's boundaries. In lakes with many islands, those islands' combined shorelines may exceed a lake's exterior shoreline.

You can find many of the world's longest-shoreline lakes on Lakelubbers.


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Surface Area | LakeLubbers

This is the area (acreage, square kilometers, etc.) of the top surface area of a lake - measured at a lake's normal elevation. The surface area can be considerably smaller or larger when lake levels are lower or higher than normal. North America's Lake Superior is the world's largest freshwater lake by this measure.

The other measure of a lake's size is the lake's water volume. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Lake Baikal in Siberia.

You can find many of the world's largest lakes (acres) on Lakelubbers. There is no widely-accepted minimum surface area that defines a lake. What Lakelubbers describes as a lake, you might call a pond. The smallest lake that Lakelubbers currently includes is Hawaii's 2-acre Lake Waiau.


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Water Level Control | LakeLubbers

This is the organization that controls water releases or outflows from the lake or reservoir. In the USA, this is often the US Army Corps of Engineers, a power company, a municipal water system, an irrigation district, or a paper manufacturing company. In the case of private or gated lakes, a homeowners' association may be the lake's controlling authority.

Many lakes cross borders, including North America's Great Lakes. The control of such lakes and their coveted freshwater may be amicably shared - or hotly disputed.

"Water wars" continue at many lakes as growing populations and crop irrigation needs compete for the freshwater that lakes contain.


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Lake Type | LakeLubbers

There are 3 basic types of lakes that are currently included on LakeLubbers. 2 types may be dammed or not dammed, producing 5 classifications.

- A Reservoir is a man-made freshwater lake that is usually created by damming rivers.

- A Natural Freshwater Lake occurs naturally - often by glacial activity - and has a salinity of less than 30 parts per thousand. It may be dammed to produce electricity or for other reasons.

- A Natural Saltwater Lake occurs naturally and has a salinity of more than 30 parts per thousand (ppt). It may be dammed.

"Brackish" water may be categorized as freshwater or saltwater, depending on its salt content (salinity). Oligohaline water has less than 15 ppt of salt. Mesohaline water has 15-29 ppt. Polyhaline has 30-335 ppt.


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