Lake Mercer, a glacial lake deep under the Antarctic ice, stood untouched for millennia – until now.
Scientists accidentally discovered the lake in 2007 when they viewed satellite images of the Antarctic ice sheet. Then, on December 26, 2018, they finally came to him.
In order to explore the 50-foot glacier lake, researchers from a project called SALSA (Sub-Atlantic Antarctic Lake Science Access) had to pull a hole nearly 1 kilometer into the ice. They did this by using a pencil-sized nozzle that splashes hot water. After the hole is made, they then use a core tool to draw samples back to the surface. The team was expecting to find microbial forms of life in these samples ̵
A Surprise in the Mud
SALSA's team stopped the extraction of a 5.5-foot (the longest ever from a glacier lake), along with six of the six "perfect" sediment cores. They also filled six 10-liter bottles of lake water and shot the first of their kind footage on the lake. The fruits of their work were taken back to McMurdo Ice Station for analysis, according to the SALSA blog.
When the researchers discovered the bodies of small crustaceans and parrots in the samples, Priscu was so surprised he thought the discovery was a mistake. He was convinced that the cores were polluted, Nature said. So he made the team clean up their equipment and take more samples.
When the new samples returned, they were: more shellfish shells. Nothing like that has ever been found on ice.
Lake Mercer is the second glacier lake the scientists have reached – 2600 feet down to reach the nearby Lake Willens in 2013, but the samples taken there did not show signs of higher forms of life (only microbes). Microbial life is most likely to exist in this mud under the ice because the ocean has covered the area about a million years ago, SALSA chief scientist John Priscu said. But that does not explain the origin of the corpses.
Instead, the discovery suggests that these crustaceans and charizars once lived on the continent; somehow they have been transported to the lake from the nearby mountains (where such creatures have been found before). The moving water could carry them, or the glacier could drag them as it progressed, according to Nature.
How to get to the lake under the ice
Submarine Antarctica is an interstate water supply network. Streams and rivers connect hundreds of water bodies under the ice, and this network has changed over the course of Antarctic history. Understanding how the continent's ice reacts to climate change on Earth helps scientists understand more about its history. "Antarctica is the place that people are the least touched by humans, and as such is an incredible laboratory to understand the life and biodiversity and glacial history of our planet," said Ross Virginia, director of Dartmouth College's Arctic Research Institute . ,
Plus, exploring Antarctic waterways is a crucial way to monitor the potential effects of global warming.
"Evolution of ice sheets and ice shelves are major controllers for raising sea levels," says Virginia. But the study of the Antarctic's behind-the-eye systems is extremely difficult.
Virginia has been working and going dry in the Antarctic valleys for nearly 30 years and has worked with Priscu for other research projects in Antarctica. Drilling in these environments requires, according to him, the same care that NASA takes when exploring new worlds in space – "like quarantining astronauts returning from the Moon or maintaining sterile equipment." This is because pollution can easily destroy costly and important research or even make scientists think they have found a kind of life that is not actually there. "We're always worried about pollution," Victoria said. "You do not want to introduce superficial organisms into locked underground ecosystems. That's why good equipment is crucial.
SALSA's team uses a core, which is essentially a pipe that is screwed in the ice by the Woods Oceanic Oceanographic Institute. Although the hole they pierced was not wider than 60 centimeters, the researchers managed to slide their kernel through the almost 1-kilometer chute. Once he hit the sediment below, the kernel – and the muddy mud he grabbed – was pulled back to the surface.
Making the Path to Drill in Other Extreme Circles
Since the drilling operation was so difficult and complex, the SALSA project could offer lessons for conducting research in other extreme environments, perhaps even on other planets.
Drilling in Antarctica is as close as scientists can figure out what it takes to break into the moon of the moon of Jupiter Europe, said Mark Skidmore, a professor of natural sciences at the State University of Montana.
Experts believe that the oceans of Europe are one of the most likely places to find extraterrestrial life in our solar system.
"We are familiar with the types of technology and processes and how you will do it, and we will learn what you will find in these types of environments," Skidmore told Axios.
But Antarctic drilling also favors us on Earth
Virginia's biggest concern is that the large floating ice sheets that stretch from the Antarctic mainland are melting underwater. (Last year was the warmest year for the oceans on Earth.)
As the ice plates melt underneath, they lose structural integrity. If they collapse, it could mean that ocean waves will flow from continental ice, an event called "pulse", which will contribute to a rapid rise in sea level.
"Leaves act as a dam," says Virginia. In a sense, Antarctica reacts to climate change and exercises control over the Earth's climate, he says: "The Antarctic climate story is related to the globe."