WISSARD named a top science story of 2013

WISSARD named a top science story of 2013

Image from the 625-mile, 14-day traverse from McMurdo Station to the Lake Whillans drill site.
Frank Rack | UNL
Image from the 625-mile, 14-day traverse from McMurdo Station to the Lake Whillans drill site.

UNL scientists and hot water drillers figure into Discover magazine’s 12th-biggest science story of the year.

The magazine, which ranks the year’s top 100 science stories each December, featured the WISSARD project as its No. 12 story for 2013. WISSARD stands for the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling – in which a team of scientists and engineers succeeded in drilling through the West Antarctic ice sheet to reach a subglacial lake in January. It was accomplished with a clean access hot water drill system designed and manufactured at UNL.

The National Science Foundation-funded team drilled a 30-centimeter-diameter hole through a half-mile of ice to reach Subglacial Lake Whillans to retrieve water and sediment samples that have been isolated from direct contact with the atmosphere for many thousands of years.

“Within hours, they found bacterial cells, more than 450,000 per teaspoon. Deprived of sunlight, some of these bacteria may instead eat iron and sulfur minerals generated as glaciers grind up the bedrock,” the magazine wrote in the two page-story titled “The Search for Life Trapped Under Ice.”

The edition is on newsstands now. A digital edition with limited free access to content is available here.

Frank Rack, UNL associate professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences and the executive director of the Antarctic Geologic Drilling (ANDRILL) Science Management Office at the university, said that for the UNL team, punching through to the lake was the culmination of a sustained, 18-month-long effort to design, fabricate, test and deploy a new hot water drill system capable of providing clean access to a previously unexplored subglacial environment.

“The scientific outcomes of this project mark the beginning of a new era in Antarctic subglacial exploration, and the UNL team is both excited and pleased to be able to contribute to this ongoing process of discovery," he said.

The aerial view of the drill site that is included in the Discover magazine article will help readers understand the engineering, logistics, and operational challenges that were overcome by the WISSARD project and the U.S. Antarctic Program to accomplish the discovery, Rack said. See more Discovery magazine photos of the WISSARD project here.

The hot water drill system and supporting science infrastructure were traversed southward from McMurdo Station a distance of more than 600 miles and assembled above Subglacial Lake Whillans to melt a clean access hole through more than 800 meters of ice, leading to the exploration and sampling of this shallow lake.

“The hot water drill uses off-the-shelf as well as custom-built equipment that was primarily obtained from vendors in Nebraska and other Midwest states, supported by engineering design expertise gathered from Connecticut to California,” Rack said.

In addition, Discovery ranked scientists' confirmation of the Higgs Boson particle No. 93 of 100. The initial discovery topped the magazine's 2012 list. In addition to helping develop portions of the project's particle detector, UNL’s experimental high-energy physics team has contributed regularly to different aspects of data analysis in pursuit of the particle.

During December testing of the drill, Frank Rack explains the operation of the drill's UV collar used to decontaminate hoses and cables to be deployed downhole.