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Elburn scientists studying lake under Antarctic ice

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

ELBURN – For Ross Powell, the most difficult aspect of living in Antarctica is not the cold.

It is the sheer distance that lies between him and his family in central Kane County.

“While I’m here, at the base, I have access to phones and such, so I can at least speak with everyone back home,” Powell said. “But there’s going to be a stretch of time, when I’m out on the ice, that I know it’s going to be pretty much total isolation.

“And knowing that, and knowing the strain that this puts on my wife to take care of everything while I’m gone for months at a time, it makes this a lot more difficult.”

Powell, an Elburn resident and a geology professor at Northern Illinois University, flew to Antarctica earlier this month to help lead a scientific expedition onto the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

The expedition team, organized through WISSARD – the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling project – will assemble in coming weeks to travel about 540 miles over some of the most daunting terrain on Earth to study what is happening beneath the ice.

The team intends to drill a half-mile deep, one-foot wide hole through the ice, penetrating into Lake Whillans, a body of fresh water at the bottom of the ice sheet.

Powell is currently at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Powell said the team believes the project will yield valuable insight.

On Powell’s side of the project, scientists will better understand how changes in Antarctic ice may affect global climate and sea levels.

“There is a system of rivers and lakes under the ice, and we need to understand its dynamics better,” Powell said.

Powell said other scientists in the 40-person team, including Reed Scherer, also of Elburn, and a micropaleontologist from NIU, will be studying living organisms in the lake.

Scherer was in transit to Antarctica, and could not be reached for comment.

But Powell said the results of that research could yield insight into how such organisms could survive in such harsh conditions, submerged in a lake at the bottom of ice 2,500-feet thick, in utter darkness.

He said such knowledge could help scientists searching for life in other harsh environments, such as the moons of Jupiter.

Powell said the team will begin its seven- to 10-day trek onto the ice during the height of Antarctic’s summer in early January, hauling the equipment, packed in shipping containers, over the ice using tractors and sleds.

The actual work in the field will take about three weeks. The team will return to the U.S. in February, Powell said.

The $10 million project is being funded through the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Powell said.

Powell, who is one of three scientists leading the expedition, said he believed this year’s expedition will mark only another stage in the project, as he already has traveled 13 previous times to the continent and intends to return again.

“It’s never easy, coming down here,” Powell said. “But it’s in my blood, and, once it’s in your blood, it’s difficult to stop coming down.”

Know more

NIU geologist Ross Powell of Elburn is helping lead an expedition to Antarctica to drill a half-mile down to a buried lake to study what is going on beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. But how can a liquid water lake be buried under that much ice?

Powell said the answer lies in the Earth, noting that the Earth constantly releases heat from its interior. And that heat, while usually not noticeable in more temperate climates, can be enough to melt ice – particularly when the heat is trapped under thousands of feet of insulating ice, creating a pocket of liquid water between the ice and underlying continental rock.

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