First microbial ecosystem revealed in Antarctica’s Lake Whillans

Beneath the Antarctic ice is a world unlike any other. Cycles of freeze and thaw carve drainages, rivers, canyons and even lakes under what seems, from the surface, to be an endless expanse of white.

Now, researchers have drilled down into one of these hidden landscapes, subglacial Lake Whillans in western Antarctica. The lake is more like an under-ice wetland, researchers have found, 2,600 feet (800 meters) below the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Scientists drilled into it using a warm-water drill in 2013. Publications of the results have been trickling out. They’ve revealed, for example, that some of Lake Whillans’ water comes from an ancient ocean; the seawater was trapped in the lake after the last interglacial period. The project also revealed the first microbial ecosystem in a subglacial lake. (Subsequent drilling projects have bored into the grounding line where land meets sea under the ice, revealing crustaceans and pink fish.)

Tim Hodson, a doctoral student at Northern Illinois University, is one of the researchers studying sediments brought up from Lake Whillans. Hodson, his adviser Ross Powell and their colleagues are publishing a paper in the June issue of the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters describing how water has carved the lake and its surrounding landscape. Previous studies have looked at the waterways beneath the Antarctic ice sheet, Hodson said, but the Lake Whillans project (conducted with funding from the National Science Foundation) is the first to directly access a subglacial lake. Hodson and his colleagues have found that the lake resembles a marsh, with shallow, slow drainages rather than rushing under-ice rivers.