NIU Profs Part Of Antarctica Study

Jul 12, 2013

Two Northern Illinois University professors are part of an international research team trying to anticipate rising sea levels in Antarctica. They  will also be looking into which life forms can survive in one of the coldest places on earth.

“Doing this sort of research is really fun understanding that you’re undoubtedly the first people who have ever seen this sort of thing,” said Ross Powell, Professor of Sedimentology and Climate Change.

Powell and NIU colleague Prof. Reed Scherer are part of the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project. Before they head to Antarctica, they will take the next step in the project by conducting engineering tests out west on a newly designed robotic submarine.

This submarine will be used for future research exploring the ocean beneath the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica. Before heading to the South Pole, it will undergo its first test in the waters at Lake Tahoe in California, one of the deepest freshwater lakes in the country.

“This testing up in Tahoe is primarily going to be oriented to engineering tests making sure that everything is working,” Powell explained. “After that, we’ll be able to do a bit of science investigation for the State of California because they know that there are geological faults that run through the lake, and they’re concerned about the earthquake activity.”

Powell said there is evidence that the lake’s faults have produced a tsunami in the past and, with some funding from the California Seismic Safety Commission, the submarine will be used to study the lake bed.

Instruments on the submarine will include three cameras, a robotic arm for gathering samples, and sonar and lasers for navigation. The scientists on the surface will receive a continual feed through a four-kilometer umbilical cord. 

Powell said that, after the submarine is lowered into the ocean beneath the Antarctic ice, this 24-foot-long torpedo-shaped device will alter in shape.

“It goes through this transformer-type of operation,” he said. “To get through the hole we have to melt in the ice, it has to be a cigar-like shape, and that configuration is 22 inches in diameter. When it goes into the ocean, it transforms and opens.”

As for the cost, Powell pegs the project at roughly 20 million dollars. It is funded by several donors, including the National Science Foundation for its investigation of the future of rising sea levels in Antarctica.

“The studies we do in the Antarctic can potentially have worldwide effects,” he said, “because there is the effect of global sea level. That will not directly affect us here in the Midwest, but it will certainly have compound ramifications because if people are affected in Florida or along the other coastlines of the U.S. that will have economic consequences to the whole country.”

Last winter, this research team was the first to extract samples from a subglacial lake. They discovered microbial life more than 2,000 feet below the Antarctic ice.

NASA – the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – also contributes to funding the project. NASA wants to know how these life forms can survive in such extreme conditions. The submarine will extend their investigation to the ocean beneath the ice shelf.

Powell said the ecosystems surviving in the waters at these depths may be similar to other planetary bodies in the solar system.

“We have proven that there’s microbial life in the lakes and when we use the submarine and go to the ocean we will undoubtedly find microbial life there as well. There is a potential, in the ocean at least, to find larger forms of life.”

Powell will head the executive committee that will return to the Antarctic this December. That team will include around 50 people including professor Scherer and three students from NIU. Their research will continue to study what’s happening under the ice and how the warming oceans affect the globe’s weather patterns.