Current events in science takes you beneath the deep layers of ice that covers Antarctica’s continent as scientists study rocks and subglacial lakes looking for signs of life in the mud.

Mt. Herschel, Antarctica

Antarctica icy waters 

Antarctic ice sheet

The continent of Antarctica is covered by an ice sheet. The maximum ice thickness is 4776 meters (15,670 feet). The average thickness of the ice is 1, 829 meters (6000 feet thick). Scientists studying Antarctica have discovered unknown mountain ranges and more than 200 lakes beneath the thick layer of ice that covers the continent.

Studying the land beneath the ice

The mountain ranges and lakes were discovered by airplanes flying over the continent using radar to study the land beneath the ice. The radar instruments bleeped out radio waves that traveled through the ice and bounced back when they reach the continent.

The radio waves travel at different speeds through solid ice, water and rocks. Using the speed of the radio waves bouncing off the continental rock, lakes and ice they were able to map the surface of the Antarctica continent that is not visible.

They have also drilled holes in the ice to sample lake water and the land beneath the ice sheets. The samples have given tantalizing information about life that once lived beneath the ice sheets. They also want to know if living things were living in the lakes.

Digging a bore hole

The immense weight in the ice sheets causes the ice to act in strange ways after a bore hole has been dug into the ice. The immense weight of the ice around the bore holes it to squish and ooze like Silly Putty. This causes the boreholes to squeeze shut in a few hours and up to a few days after the drilling stops.

Studying Lake Whillans in 2013

During January 2013 a team of scientists flew into a remote area above Lake Whillans, a lake about 1,000 kilometers from their base on the coast of Antarctica. They were flown in by a DC-3 that is widely used in Antarctica. Over 450,000 kilograms (1 million pounds) of drilling machines, fuel and scientific gear was brought to the area on steel sleds that took two weeks to traverse the ice from their base.

Life in water under the ice

The engineers slowly drilled through the ice to reach Lake Whillans. They reached the Lake at 11 p.m. on January 27. A team of biologists work 20 hours to bring up bottles of lake water. The lake water contained fine mineral dust that gave it a honey color.

The biologists also found living cells in the water. Each teaspoon of lake water contained approximately one-half million living cells. They were the first direct evidence of life in Antarctica’s subglacial lakes. A few weeks water in March, Russian scientists in Antarctica found further evidence of microbes living in Lake Vostok also a subglacial lake.

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