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The Subglacial Antarctic Lakes Scientific Access (SALSA) Project accessed Mercer Subglacial Lake using environmentally clean hot-water drilling to examine interactions among ice, water, sediment, rock, microbes and carbon reservoirs within the lake water column and underlying sediments. A ~0.4 m diameter borehole was melted through 1087 m of ice and maintained over ~10 days, allowing observation of ice properties and collection of water and sediment with various tools. Over this period, SALSA collected: 60 L of lake water and 10 L of deep borehole water; microbes >0.2 μm in diameter from in situ filtration of ~100 L of lake water; 10 multicores 0.32–0.49 m long; 1.0 and 1.76 m long gravity cores; three conductivity–temperature–depth profiles of borehole and lake water; five discrete depth current meter measurements in the lake and images of ice, the lake water–ice interface and lake sediments. Temperature and conductivity data showed the hydrodynamic character of water mixing between the borehole and lake after entry. Models simulating melting of the ~6 m thick basal accreted ice layer imply that debris fall-out through the ~15 m water column to the lake sediments from borehole melting had little effect on the stratigraphy of surficial sediment cores.
Subglacial Antarctic aquatic environments are important targets for scientific exploration due to the unique ecosystems they support and their sediments containing palaeoenvironmental records. Directly accessing these environments while preventing forward contamination and demonstrating that it has not been introduced is logistically challenging. The Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project designed, tested and implemented a microbiologically and chemically clean method of hot-water drilling that was subsequently used to access subglacial aquatic environments. We report microbiological and biogeochemical data collected from the drilling system and underlying water columns during sub-ice explorations beneath the McMurdo and Ross ice shelves and Whillans Ice Stream. Our method reduced microbial concentrations in the drill water to values three orders of magnitude lower than those observed in Whillans Subglacial Lake. Furthermore, the water chemistry and composition of microorganisms in the drill water were distinct from those in the subglacial water cavities. The submicron filtration and ultraviolet irradiation of the water provided drilling conditions that satisfied environmental recommendations made for such activities by national and international committees. Our approach to minimizing forward chemical and microbiological contamination serves as a prototype for future efforts to access subglacial aquatic environments beneath glaciers and ice sheets.
The development of algorithms for agile science and autonomous exploration has been pursued in contexts ranging from spacecraft to planetary rovers to unmanned aerial vehicles to autonomous underwater vehicles. In situations where time, mission resources and communications are limited and the future state of the operating environment is unknown, the capability of a vehicle to dynamically respond to changing circumstances without human guidance can substantially improve science return. Such capabilities are difficult to achieve in practice, however, because they require intelligent reasoning to utilize limited resources in an inherently uncertain environment. Here we discuss the development, characterization and field performance of two algorithms for autonomously collecting water samples on VALKYRIE (Very deep Autonomous Laser-powered Kilowatt-class Yo-yoing Robotic Ice Explorer), a glacier-penetrating cryobot deployed to the Matanuska Glacier, Alaska (Mission Control location: 61°42′09.3″N 147°37′23.2″W). We show performance on par with human performance across a wide range of mission morphologies using simulated mission data, and demonstrate the effectiveness of the algorithms at autonomously collecting samples with high relative cell concentration during field operation. The development of such algorithms will help enable autonomous science operations in environments where constant real-time human supervision is impractical, such as penetration of ice sheets on Earth and high-priority planetary science targets like Europa.
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.
The Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project will test the overarching hypothesis that an active hydrological system exists beneath a West Antarctic ice stream that exerts a major control on ice dynamics, and the metabolic and phylogenetic diversity of the microbial community in subglacial water and sediment. WISSARD will explore Subglacial Lake Whillans (SLW, unofficial name) and its outflow toward the grounding line where it is thought to enter the Ross Ice Shelf seawater cavity. Introducing microbial contamination to the subglacial environment during drilling operations could compromise environmental stewardship and the science objectives of the project, consequently we developed a set of tools and procedures to directly address these issues. WISSARD hot water drilling efforts will include a custom water treatment system designed to remove micron and sub-micron sized particles (biotic and abiotic), irradiate the drilling water with germicidal ultraviolet (UV) radiation, and pasteurize the water to reduce the viability of persisting microbial contamination. Our clean access protocols also include methods to reduce microbial contamination on the surfaces of cables/hoses and down-borehole equipment using germicidal UV exposure and chemical disinfection. This paper presents experimental data showing that our protocols will meet expectations established by international agreement between participating Antarctic nations.
The discovery of viable microbial life in ancient glacial ice has opened up a plethora of questions related to how life can be sustained in such extreme environments. Cryo-microscopic analysis of lab prepared ice samples indicates that microbes are located in the small veins of water that exist between individual ice crystals. Crucial to these studies is to obtain an understanding of the physicochemical habitat for life through physiological and microscopic analysis.
The nature of microscopic particulates in meteoric and accreted ice from the Vostok (Antarctica) ice core is assessed in conjunction with existing ice-core data to investigate the mechanism by which particulates are incorporated into refrozen lake water. Melted ice samples from a range of ice-core depths were filtered through 0.2 μm polycarbonate membranes, and secondary electron images were collected at ×500 magnification using a scanning electron microscope. Image analysis software was used to characterize the size and shape of particulates. Similar distributions of major-axis lengths, surface areas and shape factors (aspect ratio and compactness) for particulates in all accreted ice samples suggest that a single process may be responsible for incorporating the vast majority of particulates for all depths. Calculation of Stokes settling velocities for particulates of various sizes implies that 98% of particulates observed could ‘float’ to the ice–water interface with upward water velocities of 0.0003 ms–1 where they could be incorporated by growing ice crystals, or by rising frazil ice crystals. The presence of particulates that are expected to sink in the water column (2%) and the uneven distribution of particulates in the ice core further implies that periodic perturbations to the lake’s circulation, involving increased velocities, may have occurred in the past.
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