WISSARD — What’s is all about?

Subglacial Antarctic Lakes

NOTE:  This information is adapted from the WISSARD website, with some modifications to help younger learners and people unfamiliar with science terms understand what this project is all about.  As I write my blogs, I will frequently stop to explain new terms and make the science more understandable for everyone reading the blogs.  Thanks!

Subglacial (under a glacier) Aquatic (water) Environments

Over the last several decades (a decade is ten years), by using ground penetrating radar and other remote sensing tools, scientists have discovered that under the massive Antarctic sheets there lies a vast (huge) hydrological (having to do with water) system of liquid water.

This water exists because:

** there is geothermal (heat within the earth) from below the ice sheet

** there is pressure, movement, and an insulating nature from the ice sheet above.

These two factors are great enough to keep some areas at the base of the ice sheet above the freezing point, even in the extreme cold of Antarctica.  In many topographic (topographic means the way the land looks in terms of elevation) depressions (low areas) there are hundreds of lakes, both large and small.  Some of these lakes are isolate (on their own), but many are interconnected with small water channels and large areas of sediments which are saturated (full of water).  The water eventually runs out into the Southern Ocean and the ice sheet becomes a floating ice shelf.


In order to explore one of these hydrological systems at the edge of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, scientists have organized a project to access (get to) the subglacial environment.  The Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project is using a variety of tools and techniques to do this scientific research.

The team will explore subglacial Lake Whillans and the nearby grounding zone (the boundary between the area where an ice shelf or a glacier is floating on water and where it is in contact with the shore or underlying earth), on the southeastern edge of the Ross Sea.
Radar and seismic (this is relating to geological surveying methods involving vibrations produced artificially by explosions) equipment is used to profile the ice sheet on top and underlying water, sediments, and rock.  GPS (Global Positioning System) stations accurately track ice movement.  A specially designed and built Hot Water Drill (HWD) system was developed to melt a 30 centimeter hole through 800 meters of ice, providing clean access to Subglacial Lake Whillans and the base of the ice sheet.

A variety of sophisticated (complex; complicated) tools will be sent down the borehole to collect data and samples, support by equipment and laboratories on the surface of the ice.  Everything is designed with clean access in mind, so as not to contaminate this previously unexplored environment, and to maintain the pristine (unspoiled) nature of this part of Antarctica.

Stay tuned to see how all of our science research progresses throughout December, January and February.  Based at McMurdo Station for December, we’ll be testing the tools and equipment that will be used out at Lake Whillans in January and early February. It’s very exciting to see the scientists in action and to be their “eye and ears” on the ice, reporting to you about new discoveries, specially designed tools and equipment, and what it’s like to be in such a pristine environment.


8 responses to “WISSARD — What’s is all about?

  1. Hi Betty~
    The Kurkowskis loved learning about Antarctica last year through your Flexhibit, and we’ll be here following you on the WISSARD Project. Thank you so much for doing this and everything you do to make science so much more for our kids.
    PS – I’d love to know where the incredible picture above was taken. As always you do a great job!

    • Hi Tanya, Sorry it took me a few days to respond. Things are busy around here! I took that particular photo on my last trip to Antarctica. It’s out on the snow road headed back from the ANDRILL drilling site. We had a similar sunny day yesterday, while on a field trip out to the WISSARD test site. It sure is beautiful here!

  2. What kind of things are the scientists hoping to find when they are collecting data about Lake Whillans?

    • Hi Linda, Scientists will be studying the microbial life in Lake Whillans and I know that other scientists will study the ice streams under the glaciers in that region. Another team is interested in what sediments are found at the grounding line where the glacier grounds into the ocean floor. Scientists want to learn more about how the subglacial lakes are connected and how these impact the stability of the ice sheet.

  3. Hi Betty! Thanks for all the work you’re doing– it’s appreciated by many. I had the same question as Linda above. What is the purpose of the research and how do they intend to use their findings?

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