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Diving Beneath the Antarctic Ice with Dale Andersen

Mission Blue ally and long-time friend, Dr. Dale Andersen, is currently camped out with his team on the shores of Lake Obersee, a perennially ice-covered lake not too far from Lake Untersee in the mountains of Queen Maud Land, Antarctica. They made the traverse out here via snowmobile and trucks last month and are soon heading home armed with fascinating scientific data and media from under the antarctic ice.

Dale wrote Sylvia, “the skidoo ride was a bit challenging since we had white-out, near white-out and marginal conditions the whole way (125 km or so over 7 hours) but we made it out by midnight and had a tent up with some heat by 3am. Having been here a few more days we now have the camp established but our  winds are still pretty high (35-40 kts) so our work is a bit limited right now.  But soon I will be making a hole through the 4 m thick ice and go exploring a  new world that no one has yet seen….so that is worth the effort.  We are in good company here with the nesting snow petrels dancing in the wind  and cavorting our our camp now and then. And of course, a few skuas are keeping  us and the snow petrels company!”

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Very few people skidoo inland to the mountains of Antarctica, set up a camp for two months, make a hole through 15 ft ice and go swimming for science. But that’s just what Dale Andersen has done several times in recent years. What exactly is he doing? Hear it from Mr. Andersen himself.

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Dear Mission Blue Community,

I would like to bring to your attention my scientific investigations of life in extreme environments of Antarctica. I am a scientist and an explorer and I conduct interesting and unusual research in some of the most extreme and remote places on the planet. This funding will enable our continued research of one of the most beautiful and fascinating ecosystems on the planet – one we discovered while diving beneath thick Antarctic ice in Dec 2008.  Our work is a journey of discovery – one that encompasses adventure, curiosity, imagination, leadership and courage along with a burning desire to advance knowledge.

Get a sense of this enthralling adventure here in this video.

As a scientist at the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe (within the SETI Institute), a private, nonprofit organization that is dedicated to scientific research, education and public outreach, I carry out research to understand how microbial life is able to exist in extreme environments on Earth. I use the resulting scientific findings to better understand Earth’s earliest biosphere and to help guide the search for life elsewhere such as on the planet Mars or the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.  My current research within the SETI Institute is focused on perennially ice-covered Lake Untersee, located in the mountains of Antarctica (-71.34°, 13.47°). 

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I am the senior scientist for this project and I will be leading the expedition’s return to Lake Untersee for a third field season of research.  We began exploring Lake Untersee in 2008 and had a second expedition in 2011 but there is much work left to do. Lake Untersee is a very unusual lake. It is very alkaline with a pH of 10.6; in the depths of one of the basins dissolved methane levels are among the highest levels recorded in nature; while in other areas of the lake the dissolved oxygen levels are supersaturated. The water is extremely transparent, making it perhaps the clearest lake in the world; large boulders are found scattered on top of the thick ice-cover having been deposited by local glaciers; and the lake is buffeted by frequent winds that often attain speeds greater than 100 mph.  During the last ten days of the 2008 expedition we melted a one-meter diameter dive hole through the 4 m thick ice-cover and made the first direct observations of the bottom of the lake. Using SCUBA we explored the lake beneath the ice and in doing so, we made a remarkable discovery – the bottom of the lake is covered with large conical stromatolites up to a half a meter high – a microbial ecosystem that until now, had never been seen in modern environments but is analogous to microbial ecosystems that are recorded in the fossil record dating back 3.45 billion years ago – the dawn of life on our planet. Our dives were to a maximum depth of 40 meters but our drop-cameras confirmed that the structures grow to depths of at least 100 meters. This was a very exciting find and we recently published a paper in the scientific journal Geobiology that describes our discoveries.

In addition to unraveling the mysteries of the life that is found in the lake, we also are interested in the physical elements that drive these systems. One of the most important sets of data that we collect during our research is climate data. We usually install a complete weather station such as those made by Campbell Scientific, leaving them onsite for years to decades in order to understand how local climate affects or controls the living ecosystem and the physical environment such as the thick ice-covers on the lakes. Lake Untersee has proven to be one of the most challenging sites we have worked – scientifically and just physically – its a very, very windy place.  We had winds hitting 50 m/s (110 mph) on several occasions and most days we had winds hitting 30 mph for hours on end. Needless to say that makes working outside that much more physically demanding particularly when swimming beneath the ice is involved. The climate station we have near the edge of the lake has performed very well over the last three plus years but it will need to be refurbished at some point in the near future. We have downloaded the most recent data and are in the process of writing a science paper that describes the local climate regime. We will then use these data for other models and in the longer-term, the data will play an important role in monitoring global climate change. Antarctic climate datasets are very sparse compared to the rest of the world and every new location monitored is very helpful.

Lake Untersee Pano

This is a very unusual scientific project. It is not an expedition of adventure or a stunt, but hard science based on more than 30 years of research experience in the Arctic and Antarctic. We have many years in the field and many hundreds of dives beneath thick ice. Our current research in Queen Maud Land is funded entirely by private donations. Prior financial and logistic support for other research we have conducted in the McMurdo Dry Valleys and in the Bunger Hills have been provided by NSF and NASA. But the US program does not have a logistics infrastructure in place to support work on the other side of the continent so we have partnered with the Russian program. Our partnerships via the Russian Antarctic program, and the logistics company ALCI goes back many years (to cold war days, Soviet icebreakers, a joint US/Soviet expedition to Antarctica…but that is an other story) and we rely upon them for our logistics needs and Antarctic treaty permits.

Following the work at Lake Untersee, our team returns to Cape Town, South Africa in late December and afterwards, we return home with data and samples we collected and begin the process of analyzing these samples and reducing the data for publication in the scientific literature, and sharing the results with the public.  What are a few of the challenges – apart from living in working in an extremely remote and harsh environment while in Antarctica – we face each day to continue our work?  Mostly it is the search for the financial support to keep our projects moving forward. Such support includes funding for such things as:
 
•     Scientific research instruments for field measurements require frequent maintenance and calibration
 
•     Expedition equipment and supplies required to support the research must be refurbished, replaced/procured 
 
•     Shipping costs for samples and gear to or from Antarctica

•     Field team travel expenses to and from the research sites in Antarctica
 
•     Analytical costs for samples returned for additional study ( for example: metagenomics/transcriptinomics sequencing performed on next-generation sequencing platforms!!)
 
•     Publication costs in the scientific literature  
 
•     This list is actually much, much longer!
 
The field-work really is only the front half of the project. There are many samples that once returned require analysis. Water samples must be analyzed for nutrients, anions, cations, dissolved organic and inorganic carbon, isotope measurements, and other parameters of interest. The microbial mats undergo extensive studies including the use of modern molecular biology tools such as metagenomics and metatranscriptinomics. Dating of sediments from cores collected underwater is determined with a variety of techniques such as Carbon-14 and Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL). Needless to say, there is much to do when we return from an expedition.

Sincerely,

Dale Andersen

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