Lake Whillans, Antarctica

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Lake Locations: 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 Whillans statistics & helpful links

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Lake Type: Natural Freshwater Lake, Not Dammed

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