• Carolyn is a staff writer for Science and is the editor of the News of the Week section.

ScienceShot: First Evidence of Life Under Antarctic Ice

7 February 2013 5:05 pm

Alberto Behar, JPL/ASU (Underwater Camera Funded by NSF and NAS)

Under about 1000 meters of West Antarctic ice lies a complex jumble of lakes and streams—and now, researchers have their first glimpse of life that lurks down there. Last month, a U.S. team successfully used a hot-water drill—a technology designed to prevent contamination—to reach subglacial Lake Whillans. Today, the team announced that they have the first evidence of microbial life in subglacial Antarctic waters, shown here just as the team's underwater camera reached the bottom of the lake. The U.S. team is one of three international groups that sought to penetrate Antarctica's subglacial waters in the past month, seeking clues not only to glacial microbiology but also to ice sheet dynamics and the impact of climate change on the continent. Although a British team was unsuccessful in its quest to penetrate Lake Ellsworth, a group of Russian scientists successfully retrieved samples from Lake Vostok, thousands of kilometers away on the Eastern Antarctic Ice Sheet. What microbial life might lurk in Lake Vostok's waters is a mystery—it has likely been isolated from the rest of the planet for perhaps millions of years. The Whillans system is different in that it has been in periodic contact with surface waters. Ice deformation data from NASA's ICEsat, which indicates subglacial water movement, suggest that the lake has completely filled and drained twice since data-taking began in 2003. But the team hopes the Lake Whillans microbial community can help it understand so-called extremophile organisms that can exist in the extreme dark and cold, and how such microbes might also be affecting the chemistry of the ice itself.

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*Correction, 8 February: Lake Whillans is under 1000 meters of ice, not 1000 kilometers.

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