Life Beneath the Ice
Another well-preserved depth lies in a very different climate—trapped under miles of ice. This foreboding depth is one of the most tantalizing underwater ecosystems we know of.
“Ecosystem” because, just in the last week, the first ever instance of life in a subglacial lake has been spotted. DNA tests hinted at the presence of life, and a look down the microscope confirmed it—live bacteria in the water from Antarctic Lake Whillans.
Whillans is part of an expansive subglacial lake system beneath Antarctica's ice, comprising an area comparable to that of the continental United States. A team of American scientists journeyed 1,000 miles across Antarctica to drill into the lake using a custom-designed pressurized hot water jet capable of melting 2,500 feet of ice in a few days.
It’s not yet known what kind of bacteria they’ve found or whether they are brand-new species. The microbes are, however, clearly living at the extreme limits of known life. Besides Antarctica, the only other water that exists concealed in the dark beneath thick ice occurs on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Learning about life in Lake Whillans could thus inform us about life on other planets.
The discovery builds on research done by Russian researchers at Lake Vostok, another Antarctic subglacial lake. The team completed drilling to the lake in February 2012. To avoid contaminating any samples, they drilled to the surface but no further, allowing the pressurized water to seek the path of least resistance and climb up the hole created by the drill, where it could be extracted.
Last month the team announced it had successfully retrieved a core of ice from the borehole without the contamination that had plagued their earlier samples. The next step will be to analyze the core for microbes and other signs of life, which, if found, will add a second member to this alien landscape in the deep.