U.S. Scientists Reach Antarctica's Icy Lake Whillans; Drill, Baby, Drill!

First Posted: Jan 28, 2013 09:18 AM EST

Lake Whillans has remained in its icy fortress for decades, buried deep beneath over 2,000 feet of Antarctic ice. Yet a team of U.S. scientists have finally cracked through its armor. They announced on Sunday that they had successfully reached the subglacial lake.

The lake itself is located in the west of Antarctica, on the southeastern edge of the Ross Sea. Although scientists have dubbed it a lake, it's more of a dense system of streams, almost like a delta. The water itself is quite shallow--only a few feet deep.

Over the next few days, equipment will be lowered down to the lake in order to carry out measurements and obtain water samples for further study. The project, named the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling project (WISSARD), is funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs.

A similar effort has already taken place at Lake Vostok, led by a team of Russian scientists. Although they have taken water samples, they have yet to report any big discoveries. In addition, a British team attempted to drill to Lake Ellsworth in December. However, they had to abandon their project after encountering technical difficulties.

Whether or not the U.S. scientists have actually have reached the lake is not entirely certain. They have yet to send down a camera to verify their claim. Nonetheless, they did note that while using their hot water drill, they measured a water pressure change; this indicated that the borehole had connected with the lake.

The project hopes to give scientists further insight into the frozen lake's ecosystem. In addition, liquid water beneath the ice sheet will heavily influence its movement in the coming years. Modeling the ice sheet's long-term stability will be crucial if temperatures continue to rise.

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