WISSARD PI Profile: Slawek Tulaczyk

WISSARD PI Profile:  Slawek Tulaczyk

It’s an exciting time for the WISSARD Project.  All three of our lead scientists (John Priscu, Slawek Tulaczyk, and Ross Powell) are together for the first time this season. Testing phase complete, we are awaiting the arrival of the traverse team at the site of the deep field camp, SLW (remember, that stands for Subglacial Lake Whillans).  Our project is poised to begin drilling to access Lake Whillans using clean drilling technology.  If successful, this team would be the first in the world to cleanly access a subglacial lake in Antarctica.

This is an exciting time in science!  As an educator, watching this project unfold has been a journey of learning and discovery.  Each one of the principal investigators (PI’s) on this project has invested years of planning and preparation to get to this point.  We are all anticipating the start of drilling into the lake, and for what will happen next in this on-going process of science. Once the lake is accessed, scientists will deploy their instruments to collect samples of water, sediments, and important data.

Just as a reminder, WISSARD is being funded by the Antarctic Integrated System Science Program of NSF’s Office of Polar Programs, Antarctic Division.  It is their support that makes research projects possible.

Slawek Tulaczyk is the Lead Principal Investigator of what is called the LISSARD Project, a component of the WISSARD integrated science project.  LISSARD stands for Lake and Ice Stream Subglacial Access Drilling.  It is one of the three research components (parts) of the overall project.  He is also a PI for the RAGES (Robotics Access to Grounding-zones for Exploration and Science) part of WISSARD.

Slawek on Snowmobile

Here is some good background information from the WISSARD web site.  I gave further explanation in standard print in parentheses.

  “LISSARD focuses on the role of active subglacial (under a glacier) lakes in determining (figuring out) how fast the West Antarctic ice sheet loses mass to the global (world-wide) ocean and influences (has an impact on) global sea level changes (the level of the ocean going up or down).

The existence and importance of active subglacial lakes in Antarctica has been recognized just recently, and the lakes have been identified as high priority targets (places) for scientific investigations. Until about five years ago scientists thought that subglacial lakes exist as huge, but isolated (on their own), ‘bubbles’ of water trapped in deep depressions (lower areas) carved in bedrock by moving ice.

However, recent discoveries of active subglacial lakes (more than 120 have been identified in Antarctica), which are pumping water in and out on time scales of months to years, demonstrates that many subglacial lakes are part of an interconnected system (which means connected with each other) of water drainage.”

I had the chance to interview Slawek yesterday, and I felt like I had taken a semester course in two hours!  He taught me so much!  He  Slawek is involved in many research projects in both polar regions, although the majority of his work is in Antarctica.  His PhD is in geology, with an emphasis on glaciology.  

Recent work that is tied to WISSARD includes tracking the movement of the ice in the area surrounding Lake Whillans, This began back in 2005, long before WISSARD became a reality.  Slawek and his team began placing GPS and seismic units in the area near Lake Whillans to study the movement of the ice. 

Here’s how that process works.  First, Slawek and his team are dropped in the field by either a LC-130 or a smaller plane such as a Basler.  The photo below is a LC-130 Hercules aircraft.


Cargo is unloaded from the aircraft.


Here is an example of a cargo line on the ice.  The plane is a Basler, often used in the field.


The planes leave, and the team gets to work.


They use snowmobiles to get around to the various spots where they are placing the GPS and seismic units.


Their camp moves along with them, making them seem a bit like nomads on the ice shelf.


At each stop, scientists put the units together bit by bit.  Solar panels and batteries will both be used to power the GPS/seismic units.  The batteries are located inside of the storage box at the base of the stands for the solar panel.



In addition to batteries, the storage container holds the logging equipment which collects the data.  If you remember my blog on the young women scientists of WISSARD, I talked about how the seismic stations listen in and under the glaciers like a doctor would use a stethoscope to listen to your heart.


The silver pole is the GPS antenna.  It is the precise spot where data is being collected.  The ice moves a bit each day, and the whole unit moves with it.  The GPS unit measures how the glacier or ice is moving.


At the conclusion of their field work, the team is picked up and brought back to McMurdo Station.


Slawek is involved in other fascinating research projects.  One that I was particularly interested in was his work on a place called Blood Falls here in Antarctica.  Blood Falls gets its name from an outflow of iron oxide-tainted salt water flowing from the Taylor Glacier in the Taylor Valley; in the Dry Valleys, Victoria Land, East Antarctica.  The iron in the water gives it a rusty red color.  The source of the saltwater is a subglacial body of water covered by many meters of ice. It is several miles from the outlet at Blood Falls. 

This area was a marine fjord in the past.  That is why the pool of water is salty.  The weight of the ice in the glacier is squeezing the water out of the sediments.  As the water travels in and under the ice, some of it freezes but the remaining liquid becomes more concentrated in salts. 

This saltwater is four times saltier than regular seawater.  The water is -5 degrees C (23 degrees F), and Slawek is interested in answering the question of where this water comes from exactly and how it can survive as liquid water moving through a very cold glacier. 


(photo from zmescience.com)

Scientists are studying the microbial (microbes are microscopic organisms) ecosystem at Blood Falls and also the geochemistry (using the ideas of chemistry to explain the geologic systems of the Earth) of the water.  A new robotic instrument called the “ice mole” was  built with German collaborators.  The German company has an interest in this robot because they eventually want to go to an icy moon of Saturn called Enceladus.  It will take years to develop the instrument to be ready for that project.  In the meantime, Slawek and other scientists can use the ice mole to find out more about what is happening under the cracks in the Taylor Glacier near Blood Falls. They want to access those areas under the cracks, before the water comes into contact with oxygen.

WISSARD scientist Jill Mikucki has done a lot of research at Blood Falls, and she and Slawek will work together to continue learning all they can about this area.  Slawek says, “The reason why we (Jill and I) are going to Blood Falls has, like WISSARD, to do with looking for subglacial microbial life.  She has done a lot of work on surface samples of Blood Falls water, but these could be populated by microbes being blown, or washed, in from outside.  We want to get samples at 10-20 meter depth were the original, uncontaminated water flows. 

This is why Slawek and Jill are testing the use of the ice mole.  This instrument can help them get those samples.  The chemistry of the water gives clues about what kind of chemical conditions the microbes live in.
Slawek, Jill, and a team of scientists traveled to Iceland to test the ice mole. It is much less expensive to go to Iceland to test this instrument than to come all the way to Antarctica.  The photo below shows a remote area they traveled through in Iceland.


The ice mole is a very small instrument compared to many I’ve seen with the WISSARD Project.  It is like a 50 lb. torpedo traveling through the ice by melting it away.  It is a pathway to the future, which might diminish (lessen) the need for heavy drilling equipment currently used in some projects.  The German collaborators are even developing a navigational system using ultrasound to look forward during the drilling process.


The red part sticking up from the ice in the photo above is a sort of launching pad.  The silver part is the “torpedo” shaped ice mole. When in Iceland, the team didn’t have to access water covered by ice, they tested the use of the ice mole to melt through the ice.  As they deployed this instrument, it melted its way through the ice to the opening in the crack, as shown below.


The copper part of the ice mole is the heating element. There are different coils so scientists can control the heating.


Inside of the ice mole there is a bag for collecting clean water samples.


Whenever I interview a scientist, I try to learn how, when, and why they got involved in science. For Slawek, he had the dream of being a professor in geology since he was 15 years old. He grew up in Kamienna Gora, Poland.  The name of his town means stoney hill/mountain.  Appropriate for a geologist, don’t you think?  Slawek liked being outdoors as a young boy and he liked the mountains and nature.

Slawek mentioned that growing up in a Communist country meant that everything was about message control and propaganda.  He looked at science as an escape…a field of truth and facts.  He was inspired by his upper elementary and middle school geography/geosciences teacher, who ended up teaching Slawek him in high school as well.  He had the same teacher for eight years and says that she was a great influence on his love of geography and science. Many of the scientists I speak with point to a certain teacher who motivated or inspired them.  I know that a good teacher can make all the difference!

Slawek was in an earth science club in high school and also competed in the National Earth Science Olympiad.  While other high school students had to sit for exams to apply to a university, Slawek was able to select the university of his choice, because he had done so well in the Olympiad.  He went on to earn an undergraduate degree in physical geography.  He was always interested in the physical aspects of the natural world.  This degree covers such topics as landforms on the surface of the Earth, weather and climate, and hydrology.  Hydrology is the study of the movement, distribution, and quality of water on Earth (and other planets) as well as water resources.

Northern Illinois University, close to my home, was where Slawek attended graduate school, and he’s been in the United States ever since.  His pathway of science led him to the California Institute of Technology for his PhD and he made a stop at the University of Kentucky for two years after that.  He’s been at the University of California, Santa Cruz since 2000. 

Slawek is a dynamic member of the WISSARD team, and I thoroughly enjoyed spending time talking with him.  Slawek and a small team of WISSARD’s depart tomorrow morning to work on the GPS and seismic stations out near Lake Whillans.  We’ll see them in about 10 days if all goes as planned. 


All photos supplied by Slawek Tulaczyk.

3 responses to “WISSARD PI Profile: Slawek Tulaczyk

  1. Betty,
    I am loving your coverage! I am SOOO jealous that I am not there for the deep field phase of the project. Keep up the good work!

  2. Thanks , I’ve just been searching for info approximately this subject for a long time and yours is the greatest I have found out so far. However, what about the conclusion? Are you certain in regards to the supply?

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