An artist's representation of the aquatic system scientists believe is buried beneath the Antarctic ice sheet. (Credit: Zina Deretsky, NSF)

Jan. 29, 2013 — In a first-of-its-kind feat of science and engineering, a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded research team has successfully drilled through 800 meters (2,600 feet) of Antarctic ice to reach a subglacial lake and retrieve water and sediment samples that have been isolated from direct contact with the atmosphere for many thousands of years.

Scientists and drillers with the interdisciplinary Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling project (WISSARD) announced Jan. 28 local time (U.S. stations in Antarctica keep New Zealand time) that they had used a customized clean hot-water drill to directly obtain samples from the waters and sediments of subglacial Lake Whillans.

The samples may contain microscopic life that has evolved uniquely to survive in conditions of extreme cold and lack of light and nutrients. Studying the samples may help scientists understand not only how life can survive in other extreme ecosystems on Earth, but also on other icy worlds in our solar system.

The WISSARD teams' accomplishment, the researchers said, "hails a new era in polar science, opening a window for future interdisciplinary science in one of Earth's last unexplored frontiers."

A massive ice sheet, almost two miles thick in places, covers more than 95 percent of the Antarctic continent. Only in recent decades have airborne and satellite radar and other mapping technologies revealed that a vast, subglacial system of rivers and lakes exists under the ice sheet. Lakes vary in size, with the largest being Vostok Subglacial Lake in the Antarctic interior that is comparable in size to Lake Ontario.

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