WISSARD Project

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The Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project is an integrative study of ice sheet stability and subglacial geobiology in West Antarctica, funded in 2009 by the Antarctic Integrated System Science Program of National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs, Antarctic Division.

Components of the WISSARD Project

WISSARD (Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling) will examine subglacial ecosystems in a holistic context.

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The project will investigate the physical, chemical, and geobiological interactions in the subglacial environments poised at the interface of the Antarctic cryosphere, geosphere and global ocean. The WISSARD science program connects 8 institutions across the country and includes 13 research groups using specific scientific expertise in three integrated projects, LISSARD: (Lake and Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling), RAGES (Robotics Access to Grounding-zones for Exploration and Science), and GBASE (Geomicrobiology of Antarctic Subglacial Environments). This large-scale interdisciplinary approach to study the subglacial environments of a West Antarctic ice stream provides the unparalleled opportunity to highlight the process of science utilizing novel technology and the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of scientific discovery

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Overview: Water Sloshing About an Ice-Covered Continent

The LISSARD project (Lake and Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling) is one of three research components of the WISSARD integrative initiative (Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling) that is being funded by the Antarctic Integrated System Science Program of NSF’s Office of Polar Programs, Antarctic Division. LISSARD focuses on the role of active subglacial lakes in determining how fast the West Antarctic ice sheet loses mass to the global ocean and influences global sea level changes. The existence and importance of active subglacial lakes in Antarctica has been recognized just recently, and the lakes have been identified as high priority targets for scientific investigations. Until about five years ago scientists thought that subglacial lakes exist as huge, but isolated, ‘bubbles’ of water trapped in deep depressions carved in bedrock by moving ice. However, recent discoveries of active subglacial lakes (more than 120 have been identified in Antarctica), which are pumping water in and out on time scales of months to years, demonstrates that many subglacial lakes are part of an interconnected system of water drainage.

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RAGES: Robotic Access to Grounding-zones for Exploration and Science

As one of three components of WISSARD (Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling), RAGES (Robotic Access to Grounding-zones for Exploration and Science) research concentrates on the stability of the fast flowing Whillans Ice Stream in subglacial system between SLW and the ice stream grounding zone. A grounding zone is an area where the ice, ocean waters and sea floor interact; where the ice is being melted by or is freezing seawater, and where debris below and in the ice and streams flowing under the ice are released and discharge their loads. Based on our present limited data and modeling efforts, grounding zones can be influenced by:

(i) internal ice stream dynamics,

(ii) rates of subglacial sediment (till) supply to the grounding zone,

(iii) increased melting by warming ocean waters, and/or

(iv) filling/draining cycles of subglacial lakes. Grounding zones are seen as high priority targets to investigate because models indicate these are important areas that strongly influence ice sheet stability.

GBASE: GeomicroBiology of Antarctic Subglacial Environments

The GBASE project is one of three research components of the WISSARD (Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling) integrative initiative that is being funded by the Antarctic Integrated System Science Program of the National Science Foundations’s Office of Polar Programs, Antarctic Division.

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GBASE will examine distinct, but hydrologically related, subglacial environments using a combination of biogeochemical/ genomic measurements to answer key questions directly relevant to metabolic and phylogenetic biodiversity and the biogeochemical transformation of major nutrients beneath the Whillans Ice Stream.

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This research will focus on the lower portion of the Whillans Ice Stream in West Antarctica where two hydraulically connected subglacial environments will be accessed:

(1) Subglacial Lake Whillans, and

(2) Wet subglacial sediments and the aquatic environment near the grounding zone where the West Antarctic Ice Sheet meets the sea. GBASE will collect metagenomic and geochemical samples and examine both the subglacial lakes (i.e. basal ice, bulk water and sediments) and the grounding zone sites. This research will provide important phylogenetic and biogeochemical linkages across ecosystem components.

This five year project incorporates surface geophysical data with borehole and subglacial sampling and measurements. The boreholes will be drilled using a hot water drill that will utilize a large volume microfiltration and UV treatment system to continuously “sterilize” the hot water within the borehole to reduce the number of viable microorganisms originating from the melted snow and ice used as the source water for the hot water drill. This approach will maintain a pristine subglacial environment and allow us to collect uncontaminated samples

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