WISSARD PI Profile: John Priscu

WISSARD PI Profile:  John Priscu

Snow is falling right now, and has been since early this morning.  It sure brightens up the scene here in McMurdo, but it does not brighten the spirits of the Wissard’s waiting for a flight to the SLW field camp.  Once again, flights were cancelled.  The waiting game continues. Enjoy this video clip from WISSARD scientist Reed Scherer.

Today I would like to introduce the third WISSARD Principal Investigator, John Priscu.  John is the Chief Scientist for WISSARD and is on the Executive Committee along with Ross Powell and Slawek Tulaczyk.  

John is the Lead Principal Investigator of GBASE, the third research component of the WISSARD integrated science project.  GBASE stands for GeomicroBiology of Subglacial Antarctic Environments.  John is a professor in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences at Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana.  He has been a teacher and researcher at Montana State for 30 years.  


John grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he spent lots of time in wide open spaces hiking and climbing.  He has always liked the outdoors.  Growing up he spent time with his father watching Wild Kingdom and Jacques Cousteau, which helped develop his interest in science.  John earned both his undergraduate degree and Master’s Degree in Biology from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.  While working on his Master’s John rafted the lower Colorado River through the Grand Canyon doing field work.  He’s been running field programs ever since 1975.

While at the University of California in Davis for his PhD, John studied with limnologist Charles Goldman, who was the first scientist to work on lakes in the Dry Valleys.  A limnologist is a person who studies the chemical, physical, and geological characteristics of inland waters.  This could be running or standing (still) water; both fresh and saline (salty); natural or man-made.  Lakes, ponds, rivers, springs, streams, and wetlands would all be areas of study in limnology.  John traveled to high mountain lakes such as Lake Tahoe and a lake near California’s Lake Shasta to do field work.  

After earning his PhD John worked for the New Zealand government, did oceanology on research vessels on the Tasman Sea, and in 1984 landed here in Antarctica for the first time as part of a Kiwi (New Zealand) proposal to work in the Dry Valleys. He spent time in Taylor, Wright and Miers Valley that field season.  After that he spent two seasons as an oceanographer and dove under the sea ice, studying life in and under the ice.  In 1987 he was on the icebreaker Polar Star, on an oceanographic cruise, studying life under the Ross Ice Shelf.  The photos below are from that expedition.

In this first photo, John is holding a sample bottle he made himself. 

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In this photograph John is working in the lab on board the ship.

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This shot was taken on the helicopter deck of the icebreaker.

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John and other researchers would sometimes travel in smaller boats to explore and sample certain areas.  They were looking for microbes living in the ice.

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In this photo they are sampling the ice.

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Even though John enjoyed the oceanography, he missed working in the Dry Valleys, and in 1987 he was back in the valleys doing research near Lake Hoare.  That was later in the same year as the cruise.  John told me “I always liked variety.”  He built the camp at Lake Bonney, Taylor Valley in the 1988-1989 field season and he’s been doing field work in the Dry Valleys ever since.  The camp moves all around the valleys, and the guiding questions he’s focusing on deal with how climate affects ecosystems, and how do ecosystems respond to climate change?  John is also interested in finding out what happens in winter, but of course scientists are not out in the Dry Valleys during the long Antarctic winter months.

John has taken part in some extended field seasons, including one time when they stayed in the Dry Valleys until April.   At other times he’s flown down here at Winfly (winter fly-in; takes place in August) when temperatures might reach a high of -47 degrees Farenheit.  John says he loves field work, which I can see, based on how much time he’s spent here in Antarctica. 

With all of John’s contributions to scientific research in Antarctica, he has had both a valley and stream named after him.  The Priscu Valley is located at 77 degrees south latitude, 160 degrees east longitude.  It is an upland ice-free valley on the side of a plateau located in the Olympus Mountain Range.  For a point of reference, the valley opens in the north to the head of McKelvey Valley.  Do you remember me talking about Barry McKelvey who came to the Dry Valleys during the International Geophysical Year, in 1957?  You can see McKelvey Valley on the map below.  I don’t have a map with Priscu Valley on it, but this gives you an idea of where it’s located.

Webb Glacier--G091Harwood

John provided me with plenty of pictures of Priscu Stream.  In fact, he says that he hikes the stream every year, “you gotta walk your stream!” Well, how many of us have our own stream to walk?  The Priscu Stream receives its flow from the Lacroix Glacier.  John hikes the approximately 3 mile stream from its source to where it flows into Lake Bonney.

The Lacroix Glacier and the start of Priscu Stream…


The stream meanders its way through Taylor Valley on its way to Lake Bonney.


I was surprised to see how fast the water can flow.


This reminds me of the braided rivers in the sweeping valleys of Denali National Park in Alaska.




This map should help you follow the path of Priscu Stream from the Lacroix Glacier to Lake Bonney.


John continues his work on Lake Bonney and is involved in both that research and that of the WISSARD Project.  John and his team in the Dry Valleys are putting sediment traps into two basins in Lake Bonney to collect samples all year long.  They melt a hole in the ice-covered lake and lower the sediment traps to the bottom of the lake.


Using the triangular stand, scientists lower the sediment traps. 


This is what the sediment trap looks like.


John and team members can set the schedule for the collection of samples in the bottles shown below.  The trap is quite ingenious.  It rotates on the schedule John picks, and as it does this slight rotation, the bottle with the most recent sample self-caps.  Next, an empty bottle takes its place.  It’s interesting to note how the levels of sediment vary in each bottle.  John mentioned that a sample is collected about once a month.


John comes back the following field season and retrieves the samples from the winter months.  They are particularly interested in where the organic carbon (which comes from microbes) goes and how much carbon is lost to the bottom of the lake. 

As part of GBASE, John and his team will study the microbial (microscopic) life of the watery environments beneath the ice sheet, which include Lake Whillans and the Whillans Ice Stream.  For life to exist under the ice without sunlight, it needs water and nutrients.  Many of the nutrients come from the sediments at the bottom of the lake.  Only certain types of microbes would be able to live in these environments. Diatoms cannot live there because there is no light (remember, I talked about diatoms in yesterday’s blog). 

Scientists will take samples of both water and sediments.  They’ll use microscopes, chemical analyses (methods) and will look at the genetics of the microbes.  GBASE will collect samples and examine both the subglacial lakes (i.e. basal {bottom} ice, water and sediments) and the grounding zone sites.  Scientists will focus on three fundamental questions:  Is there life present?  Is it active (living)?  What is it doing (how are they making a living)?

 As the borehole is drilled, the hot water used will pass through a microfiltration and UV treatment system to continuously “sterilize” the water within the borehole.  This reduces the number of living microorganisms from the melted snow and ice used as the source water for the hot water drill. The procedure will maintain a pristine (unspoiled) subglacial environment and allow the GBASE team to collect uncontaminated samples.

The collage of pictures below shows two images of microbes as well as an investigator peering into a hole in the ice.   (retrieved from http://www.wissard.org)

Microbe images, and investigator peering into ice hole
John doesn’t just work in Antarctica.  Like Slawek and Ross, he has projects in the Arctic (and other places around the world) as well.  He’s done research at Lake Baikal in Russia; on lakes in the Alps at the border of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland; and has traveled by zodiac exploring lakes in the Andes Mountains in Argentina and Chile.  John currently has projects involving research in ice covered lakes in Barrow, Alaska.  Barrow is the northernmost city in the United States. 
As part of a NASA grant called “Icy Worlds,” John and other scientists are looking at how icy systems represent analogs (similar in structure and properties) for icy worlds outside of Earth.  They are using systems in the Arctic and Antarctic as models for other icy worlds. 
John’s travels this April will take him back to the Arctic and in June he’ll be in the Himalayan Mountains, studying the high Tibetan Plateau lakes.  John’s traveled (and is still traveling) the world to conduct research. The list of projects he’s either worked on or is currently a part of is amazing.  My head is spinning just thinking of all the knowledge he has about limnology and how changes in climate affects the ecosystems in the Arctic and Antarctic.
Besides his work as a scientist, John has his pilot’s license and has a small plane.  He also belongs to musical group called “The Textbook Blues” where he’s on lead and rhythm guitar.  For three of the four members of the group, teaching is their full time job, which is where the name of their band comes from.  I don’t know where he finds the time to do all of this and get out to ski, mountain bike, and go elk hunting.  I really enjoyed learning about a new topic and interviewing John. 
All three of our Lead Principal Investigators for WISSARD have taught me a lot about being a scientist and their particular areas of study.  The work they are involved with is incredible.  I feel as if I’ve taken several college courses while I’ve been here!
To close today’s blog, I’ll share the weather in McMurdo right now.  It’s been snowing all day…and it’s not showing any signs of letting up real soon.  All of our dusty dirt roads are blanketed in a layer of white.  Enjoy the SNOW, especially those of you in Illinois who haven’t had more than a trace of snow all winter.

3 responses to “WISSARD PI Profile: John Priscu

  1. Right, Betty, even though I’m not a winter person, I’m beginning to worry about our lack of rain and snow here in the Midwest. I can probably thank YOU for helping me to think more about climate change and the environment:) I am particularly fascinated about the idea of icy analogs to help us understand worlds beyond our own.
    Once again, you wow us with a profile of another amazing scientist doing things that I never would have imagined are being done. It’s very cool to hear about their varied interests outside their passion for their field of study. And you truly take your place among these Renaissance women and men.

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