WISSARD Project Overview

Subglacial Antarctic Lakes

Subglacial Aquatic Environments

Over the last several decades, by using ground penetrating radar and other remote sensing tools, scientists have discovered that under the massive Antarctic ice sheets there lies a vast hydrological system of liquid water.  This water exists because geothermal heat flow from below, coupled with pressure, movement, and the insulating nature of the ice sheet above, is great enough to maintain some areas at the base of the ice sheet above the freezing point, even in the extreme cold of Antarctica.  In topographic depressions there are hundreds of lakes, both large and small; some are isolated, but many are interconnected by water channels and large areas of saturated sediments, the water eventually running out into the Southern Ocean as the ice sheet becomes a floating ice shelf.


In order to explore one of these hydrological systems at the margin of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, we have organized an interdisciplinary project to access the subglacial environment.  The Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling project (WISSARD) is using a variety of tools and techniques to explore Subglacial Lake Whillans and the nearby grounding zone, on the southeastern edge of the Ross Sea.  Radar and seismic equipment is used to profile the overlying ice sheet and the underlying water, sediments, and rock, while GPS stations accurately track ice movement.

Continued geophysical surveying is the focus of the 2013-2014 season.  Two sites on the Whillans Ice Stream will be investigated. At each site a mobile, hot water drill will be used to create 15 cm holes, 750 meters in depth where borehole sesimic, tilt, and heat sensors will be deployed and left to collect long-term data.  Surface seismic sensors will also be installed, to add to the network of GPS and active seismic stations monitored on the surface of the ice stream to help characterize the movement of ice and the conditions of the ice at the base of the ice stream.