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American Drilling Team Is About to Break Through 800 Meters of Ice to Reach Subglacial Lake

Sampling should be done late this evening, with scientific sampling of the subglacial waters beginning immediately

An on-site laboratory will let scientists check for microbial life in the subglacial water. Photo: Susan Kelly, WISSARD

Last week, a troupe of American scientists set out from McMurdo Station, an island base on the coast of Antarctica’s Ross Sea, to their West Antarctic field site. The scientists mission is to drill into subglacial Lake Whillans, a body of flowing water trapped beneath the Antarctic glacier ice.

Since drilling began on January 23, the team has made it down through the uppermost 700 meters of the 800-meter-thick ice. The scientists’ final push should be underway right about now, with the drill inching gently toward subglacial Lake Whillans. The Whillans team:

Drillers will drill rapidly (~0.5 m/min) for the next 50 m then slow down for the final 50 m. They hope to enter the lake around 6 PM local time, then ream to a 61cm diameter until around 1 AM. The first science sampling will begin at 2 AM if all goes well.

Like other recent expeditions to Antarctic subglacial lakes, the team is looking for any sign that bacterial life that has been trapped beneath the ice, cut off from the goings-on on the rest of the planet.

The Lake Whillans team has been peppering their Facebook page with interesting tidbits about the drilling process. For instance, did you know that “the drill puts as much energy down hole, through a spray nozzle the size of a pencil, as a railroad locomotive produces.”

And, they write,

The hole we drill is 800 meters deep. That is so deep we could stack the Eiffel tower, great pyramids of Egypt, the Washington Monument, the tallest tree in the world, and the US White House on top of each other and still be 31 meters (102 feet) below the ice (but they would have to be really skinny to fit in the borehole).

Should the Whillans team find evidence of microbial life in the subglacial waters in the coming days, it will be the first time ever that life has been observed in such harsh conditions.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Round Three: Drills vs. Insanely Thick Antarctic Ice. Fight!

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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