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Bozeman scientist is expert on Russian polar expedition
February 14, 2012
Editor@montanaliving.com


MSU professor John Priscu is a sought-after expert on microbial life in polar ice and a leader of a U.S. project to explore the world beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).
By Evelyn Boswell

BOZEMAN -- A Montana State University expert on microbial life in polar environments and a leader of a U.S. project to explore the world beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is garnering worldwide attention for his insights into a Russian drilling project in Antarctica. For 10 years, John Priscu convened an international group of specialists that planned the logistical, environmental and scientific aspects of research beneath the Antarctic ice sheets.

Russian scientists announced Feb. 8 that they had drilled through 2.4 miles of ice and reached the surface of Lake Vostok on Feb. 5. Lake Vostok, approximately the size of Lake Ontario, is one of the largest freshwater lakes on the planet, and by far the largest out of more than 200 that lie below Antarctica’s ice sheets. Since the lake has not been in direct contact with the atmosphere for more than 15 million years, the Russians hope to find primitive bacteria that could help explain the origins of life on Earth and other planets. The Russians have been drilling for more than a decade to reach the lake.

Priscu, a professor in MSU’s Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, has been quoted extensively about the project by the New York Times, Washington Post, the national CBS News, Scientific American, the Voice of America and other media outlets in North America, South America, Europe and Asia. He also conducted two live interviews on National Public Radio. His website has received more than 10 million hits during the past week alone.

Having spent more than 25 research seasons in Antarctica and as the acting chief scientist of a similar U.S. drilling project in Antarctica, Priscu has been asked to comment on the Russians’ drilling techniques and their possible impact on the subglacial environment, as well as their scientific achievements. He told Voice of America that the Russians would put no probes or hardware into Lake Vostok. They also would not let any of their borehole fluid enter the ancient, pristine lake.

He told the New York Times that the Russians were racing against time to complete the project before the Antarctic summer ended. Temperatures had already dropped to lower than minus-45 degrees Fahrenheit. He added that he applauded the Russians for their success and said,” I think they have done a great job given the fact that they were working in temperatures dropping to minus-50 Fahrenheit and pressing the ensuing polar night.”

When the Russians were out of radio communication for a week, Priscu also addressed concerns for the team’s safety.

“They are very capable scientists and drillers and the thought never entered my mind that they are in any kind of danger,” he told FoxNews.com. He added that lost communications are common when working in the most remote place on the planet.

The United States and Great Britain, in two separate projects, plan to start drilling through the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in 2013 to reach other subglacial lakes, but their techniques are different from the Russians. The U.S. and U.K., who are targeting smaller and younger lakes than Lake Vostok, both plan to use hot-water drills to melt through the ice. While the Russians used 66 tons of kerosene-based fluids to keep their borehole open, the U.S. and U.K. projects will use hot water to both melt through the ice and maintain pressure within the borehole so that it does not squeeze shut under the enormous pressures below the ice sheet. Responding to concerns that their methods might contaminate Lake Vostok, the Russians have said in media reports that their borehole would barely touch the surface of the lake. After reaching the lake, they said that approximately 50 cubic feet of kerosene and freon shot up their five-inch diameter borehole and began to freeze. They plan to return to Vostok Statin next year and take cores of this frozen lakewater to gain an understanding of what lurks in the surface waters of the lake.

The U.S. drill is already on its way to western Antarctica, where American drillers plan to melt through 3,000 feet of ice to reach Subglacial Lake Whillans and its rivers beneath an Antarctic ice stream, Priscu said. The filtration system to ensure the sterility of the hot water was tested at MSU’s College of Engineering last year.

The researchers believe that Lake Whillans, like Lake Vostok, has been sealed off from the Earth’s atmosphere for millions of years. Therefore, it could harbor never-before-seen life that may offer lessons about how life can survive without light and at temperatures near the freezing point of water. It may also serve as an early analogue for Priscu’s research that focuses on the habitability of other icy worlds in this solar system.

Priscu will return to Antarctica next year as the U.S. project begins drilling.

The U.S. project is a five-year effort that involves 14 researchers from nine U.S. institutions. Funded with a $10.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, plus another $40 million in logistical costs,the project is called WISSARD, or the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling project. The program manager, Rob Edwards, and outreach coordinator, Susan Kelly, for the project are also based in the Department of LRES and MSU.

The British team plans to study Lake Ellsworth, a lake that lies about two miles below the ice in western Antarctica.

For related articles, see:

“Russian scientists bore into ancient Antarctic lake” in the New York Times at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/09/world/europe/russian-scientists-bore-into-ancient-antarctic-lake.html

“Russians drill into Lake Vostok, begin search for life under Antarctic ice” in Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/russians-drill-into-lake-vostok-begin-search-for-life-under-antarticas-surface/2012/02/09/gIQARwn31Q_story.html

“Antarctic researchers gathered at MSU to test equipment for pioneering work” http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=9524

“Massive project takes MSU to one of Earth’s final frontiers” at http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=7633

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