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A clean hot-water drill was used to gain access to Subglacial Lake Whillans (SLW) in late January 2013 as part of the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project. Over 3 days, we deployed an array of scientific tools through the SLW borehole: a downhole camera, a conductivity–temperature–depth (CTD) probe, a Niskin water sampler, an in situ filtration unit, three different sediment corers, a geothermal probe and a geophysical sensor string. Our observations confirm the existence of a subglacial water reservoir whose presence was previously inferred from satellite altimetry and surface geophysics. Subglacial water is about two orders of magnitude less saline than sea water (0.37–0.41 psu vs 35 psu) and two orders of magnitude more saline than pure drill meltwater (<0.002 psu). It reaches a minimum temperature of –0.55~C, consistent with depression of the freezing point by 7.019 MPa of water pressure. Subglacial water was turbid and remained turbid following filtration through 0.45 µm filters. The recovered sediment cores, which sampled down to 0.8 m below the lake bottom, contained a macroscopically structureless diamicton with shear strength between 2 and 6 kPa. Our main operational recommendation for future subglacial access through water-filled boreholes is to supply enough heat to the top of the borehole to keep it from freezing.
There is significant interest in sampling subglacial environments for geobiological studies, but they are difficult to access. Existing ice-drilling technologies make it cumbersome to maintain microbiologically clean access for sample acquisition and environmental stewardship of potentially fragile subglacial aquatic ecosystems. The IceMole is a maneuverable subsurface ice probe for clean in situ analysis and sampling of glacial ice and subglacial materials. The design is based on the novel concept of combining melting and mechanical propulsion. It can change melting direction by differential heating of the melting head and optional side-wall heaters. The first two prototypes were successfully tested between 2010 and 2012 on glaciers in Switzerland and Iceland. They demonstrated downward, horizontal and upward melting, as well as curve driving and dirt layer penetration. A more advanced probe is currently under development as part of the Enceladus Explorer (EnEx) project. It offers systems for obstacle avoidance, target detection, and navigation in ice. For the EnEx-IceMole, we will pay particular attention to clean protocols for the sampling of subglacial materials for biogeochemical analysis. We plan to use this probe for clean access into a unique subglacial aquatic environment at Blood Falls, Antarctica, with return of a subglacial brine sample.
Taylor Glacier hosts an active englacial hydrologic system that feeds Blood Falls, a supraglacial outflow of iron-rich subglacial brine at the terminus, despite mean annual air temperatures of −17°C and limited surface melt. Taylor Glacier is an outlet glacier of the East Antarctic ice sheet that terminates in Lake Bonney, McMurdo Dry Valleys. To image and map the brine feeding Blood Falls, we used radio echo sounding to delineate a subhorizontal zone of englacial brine upstream from Blood Falls and elongated in the ice flow direction. We estimate volumetric brine content in excess of 13% within 2 m of the central axis of this zone, and likely much higher at its center. Brine content decreases, but remains detectable, up to 45 m away along some transects. Hence, we infer a network of subparallel basal crevasses allowing injection of pressurized subglacial brine into the ice. Subglacial brine is routed towards Blood Falls by hydraulic potential gradients associated with deeply incised supraglacial valleys. The brine remains liquid within the subglacial and englacial environments through latent heat of freezing coupled with elevated salt content. Our findings suggest that cold glaciers could support freshwater hydrologic systems through localized warming by latent heat alone.
On the basis of the prevalence of cold environments in our solar system, the search for extraterrestrial life is focused largely on icy habitats. The McMurdo Dry Valleys (MDV) area is a polar desert with a mean annual temperature below freezing and extremely low humidity (Wharton et al.,1995) and thus offers a suitable earthly analog to our nearest exobiological candidate, Mars. Water is thought to have been abundant on Mars early in its geological history (Solomon et al., 2005; Squyres et al., 2006; Head and Marchant, this volume, Chapter 2) and perhaps may even have flowed across the surface more recently (Hauber et al., 2005; Head et al., 2005; Malin et al., 2006). Life as we know it requires the presence of liquid water to mediate biochemical reactions for energy as well as a reasonably stable environment in which to grow; therefore the search for extraterrestrial life has been largely a search for environments where liquid water can be maintained for some duration (e.g., Carr, 1983).
There is significant geomorphological evidence, and mounting physical evidence supporting the presence of paleolakes on ancient Mars (Squyres et al., 2006). This intrigues exobiologists because paleolakes would provide a suitable habitat for early martian life forms (Carr, 1983; Wharton et al., 1995; Doran et al., 2004). Lakes on the martian surface would have become progressively colder over geological time, developing seasonal and eventually perennial ice covers (Carr, 1983).
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