Give Now  »

Noon Edition

Hidden Antarctic Ecosystems

ice sheet in Antarctica

Below The Surface

Antarctica is the last place you would expect to find liquid water, but sealed beneath Antarctica's ice sheet lie about 400 hidden lakes. Geothermal energy, along with friction and a heavy blanket of ice, keeps the water liquid on this frigid continent.

Scientists have long wondered about what strange creatures might lurk in these dark lakes. They discovered microorganisms in an ice core drilled above Lake Vostok in the 1990s, but those organisms might have come from contamination during the drilling process.

Convinced that life would be found, scientists from Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States continued to search.

The teams attempted to sample three lakes: Ellsworth, Whillans and Vostok. The Russians pierced ice to reach Lake Vostok, but have yet to find evidence of life. The British temporarily suspended their efforts to reach Lake Ellsworth. It was the Americans who accomplished their goal at Lake Whillans.

Meltwater Microcosm

Lake Whillans is located in a shallow valley at the downstream end of a slow‑moving ice sheet. The scientists carefully collected three 10-liter water samples from the lake. They were confident that organisms came from the lake because cell concentrations in the collected water were much higher than the count from the drill hole meltwater. Meltwater is chemically similar to distilled water. Their samples also had mineral levels one hundred times higher than meltwater, similar to what's present in the lake.

Preliminary tests in mobile labs at the drill site showed that the cells were alive and using oxygen. Later, the team identified genetic traces of nearly 4,000 microbial species. They even cultured and grew bacteria they retrieved from the lake.

They found not only life, but a thriving ecosystem.

Read More:

"A Microbial Ecosystem Beneath The West Antarctic Ice Sheet" (Nature)

Support For Indiana Public Media Comes From

About A Moment of Science