Creatures Below Antarctic Sheet Incite Evolutionary and Extraterrestrial Questions

Illustration by Sophia Huang.
Illustration by Sophia Huang.

Forty-four scientists woke up to another nightless day in Antarctica to collect water samples and temperatures in a hidden subglacial lake, as a part of a project that included various trips to the icy shelf over the span of four years. This year, however, they found something they weren’t prepared for.

In an extreme environment where the sun never sets and temperatures hover around -2 degrees Celsius, the team, which included six UC Santa Cruz researchers and graduate students, found an entire world — a living ecosystem — unseen and untouched by humankind.

The researchers spent nearly two weeks in Antarctica, but had just 10 days before the hole they drilled would freeze shut. After working around the clock with limited sleep for over a week, researchers on the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project were astonished to see a tiny pair of curious eyes looking back at them through the other side of the video lens.

“[The fish] were sizing up the camera but not afraid of light. They seemed to have strategies, snaking in and out of sight,” said WISSARD project lead glaciologist and UCSC earth and planetary sciences professor Slawek Tulaczyk. “There is no strong current there. Maybe they thought the camera was food.”

They had witnessed the first multicellular creature known to live in such extreme cold. The scientists found at least three types of fish, Tulaczyk said.

Translucent, 8-inch long fish were soon joined by small shrimp-like crustaceans and multicolored jellyfish — all of which were thriving in complete darkness half a mile below the West Antarctic Ross Ice Sheet at the bottom of the world.

In October, a supporting team of over 1,000 dragged 500,000 pounds of specialized equipment across 600 miles of frozen Antarctic ice until it reached its final destination at Lake Whillans Ice Stream, where the drilling would begin in January. The goal of the project was to take water samples of the grounding zone — the location where ice, sea and land converge — and examine the flow of the subglacial lake in relation to surrounding water.

Courtesy of Chad Carpenter.
Dan Gibson, a driller, walks near the camp, with the Transantarctic Mountains in the background. Courtesy of Chad Carpenter.

Government Complications

The project was a part of President Barack Obama’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus package, which employed about a dozen previously unemployed doctorate researchers and specialized engineers.

“It was supposed to create and retain jobs at a time when jobs were disappearing,” Tulaczyk said. “We provided jobs for people who built the drill and went with us to Antarctica.”

The project’s 2013-2014 season was almost canceled due to the 16-day government shutdown in October 2013 after Congress failed to pass budget legislation to fund federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“NSF had no money to pay the government contractors who normally go to Antarctica in October to prepare equipment and supplies for complex research projects like ours,” Tulaczyk said. “A good number of people who every year had this seasonal job did not get hired by NSF at all because NSF had to cancel most complex Antarctic projects, which require long preparations.”

For the researchers to begin work in Antarctica in December, the support team must depart in October. Despite the threat of cancellation, in early 2014 NSF told the team it would still support its research in 2014.

Hot water drill. Courtesy of Chad Carpenter.
Hot water drill. Courtesy of Chad Carpenter.

“It’s a political game that we got caught up in. It’s caused by contentious politics in D.C. Once you start getting into money that is spelled with million, there is politics,” Tulaczyk said.

This season, the researchers collected data using a specially designed $3 million hot water drill intended to cut two holes cleanly through a half-mile of ice — one 2-foot wide and a smaller 1-foot wide borehole.

The drill, built by hired mechanics and researchers from the University of Nebraska, blasted jets of pressurized hot water to bore through the ice as cleanly and quickly as possible so that the samples wouldn’t be contaminated by surface particles.

After over a week of camping in freezing conditions, the team was disappointed to once again not find anything on the video footage, Tulaczyk said. Footage caught on a GoPro showed that it only took a brief moment of a fish bolting by for the exhausted scientists to jump and shout with joy.

“No one was really sure what to expect on the biology side,” said WISSARD project researcher and UCSC graduate student Carolyn Branecky. “We weren’t really sure how similar the subglacial lake environment was [to known ecosystems]. I wasn’t sure what we were going to find, the discovery of these creatures was something of an open question for all of us.”


Finding Life

Not expecting that it would find multicellular life, the WISSARD project research team brought four microbiologists, but no one who works with living creatures bigger than microbes. In a state of excitement, the team lowered “last night’s dinner leftovers” into the depths, which instantly drew over 70 shrimp-like amphipods. While the team collected these amphipods for sampling, it was physically unable to catch any of the agile fish or jellyfish observed on the video footage.

“We know that microbes can survive everywhere, but the bar of survival is much higher for multicellular life,” Tulaczyk said. “This find begs the question: What is the energy source for these fish? Are they still being fed by organic material created by photosynthesis or is it a chemosynthetic environment?”

Living creatures on Earth predominantly get their energy through photosynthesis. Since there is no sunlight below the ice, researchers don’t think it’s possible for photosynthesis to occur. The other potential possibility for this ecosystem would be chemosynthesis — a mode of energy production found in remote, extreme environments such as mid-ocean ridges and possibly below Antarctic ice.

Chemosynthesis is the biological conversion of carbon molecules into usable energy. Since photosynthesis evolved about a billion years ago, chemosynthesis has retreated into the depths of dark, extreme climates. However, scientists are currently running tests and will not know for at least six months whether where they found life is a chemosynthetic environment or not.

“If it is chemosynthetic, it will make a big splash,” Tulaczyk said. “It will get published all over the world because it is not a very common thing. It gives us more hope for the possibility for places like Europa.”

Europa is a satellite moon of Jupiter that is completely covered in a thick icy crust. According to NASA scientists, under Europa’s icy shell there are signs of a body of water not unlike the oceans we have on Earth. Since it has been proven that life can exist under Antarctica’s ice, it is possible that there may be extraterrestrial life below Europa’s ice.

The latest 2016 budget released by the Obama administration in February outlined increased funding, about $30 million, for NASA to send a probe to Europa.

“Discovering a tree of life that is completely separate, and evolved separately, will be as eye-opening as evolution,” Tulaczyk said.

The WISSARD project proved that multicellular life can exist in lightless environments and freezing temperatures, suggesting that there could possibly be life living under the ice, even on planets 39.4 million miles away from Earth.

After working around the clock with limited sleep for over a week, researchers on the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) found the first multicellular creature known to live in such extreme cold. Courtesy of Chad Carpenter.
After working around the clock with limited sleep for over a week, researchers on the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) found the first multicellular creature known to live in such extreme cold. Courtesy of Chad Carpenter.

Drilling projects are collaborative, said Dr. Jill Mikucki, a microbiologist from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, who expressed her respect for all of her colleagues involved. There is a high level of respect for those who designed and engineered the operating drilling equipment as well as those who contributed in fieldwork.

“As a microbiologist working in Antarctic subglacial environments I have learned how robust life is. If there is energy available, life will find a way,” Mikucki said. “If I were to return I would hope to bring more students with me so that together we can learn about the specific mechanisms that allow life to live in the cold, dark isolation below glaciers.”

A Second Discovery : The Future of Climate Change

If you hang around climate scientists enough, you might notice a similar trend when the rising sea level is discussed — there’s an alarming sense of urgency. According to recent Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) studies, we are possibly in for something much more drastic.

According the National Climate Assessment report, the 8-inch rise since the late 1800s is greater than at any time in the past 2,000 years. Sea levels are estimated to rise 1 to 4 feet by 2100.


Since the WISSARD project was done above an Antarctic subglacial lake, lead glaciologist Slawek Tulaczyk and a team of environmental glaciologists have been searching for answers. How do subglacial bodies of water interact? Are they in fact further spurring global climate change?

And the WISSARD project’s ultimate environmental question: How long do we have before cities and homes will be directly affected by sea level rise?

Over the past four years, studies conducted by WISSARD project researchers have shown west Antarctic ice to melt the fastest due to its comparatively higher exposure to warming sea water and air. These ice sheets gain mass through surface snowfall, but most of the melt happens beneath the surface, on the “front line of climate change,” where the ice meets the warm ocean.

“This sea water will destabilize the grounding zones until ultimately, the entire west Antarctic sheet will disappear,” Tulaczyk said. “How fast that happens depends on how fast ice melts at seawater of a given temperature.”

Using X-ray images captured through the middle of the ice sheets and a geothermal probe — a thermometer that measures down to one thousandth of a degree, designed and built by UCSC — climate and environmental researchers further investigated how freshwater ice flows toward the ocean.

“We can learn a great deal about exploring how the Antarctic ice sheet works from surface studies and from satellite observations from space” said WISSARD project Chief Scientist and Lead Principal Investigator Ross Powell. “We still need to get under it to provide us with data we can use to construct the most reliable models of how it may work in the future during global warming.”

The cause of increased melting may be attributed to “underground rivers” and “upside down channels” averaging a half-mile wide and 100 meters deep, some even as tall as the Eiffel Tower. These features rapidly move freshwater within the glacier to areas of comparatively warmer salt water. This mixing warms the water mixture and quickly melts the ice, causing parts of the glacier to become weak and isolated and break off of the sheet altogether.

“We are trying to collect observations to build computer models to answer questions of what is the worst case scenario? Sixteen inches [of sea level rise] could potentially happen in a decade,” Tulaczyk said. “Observations for what we are making are important for scientists to have to make the models more realistic. They very often assume, because observations are so difficult to get.”

By 2100, UCSC WISSARD project researchers project that the sea level rise will, at a minimum, cause the San Francisco coastline to retreat by three miles. San Francisco International Airport, Oracle headquarters and the NASA Ames Research Center could potentially be flooded. Places like Florida and the Atlantic coast will experience more damage because they’re comparatively much flatter than the more mountainous Pacific coast.

“If you are a student, your children will likely see the consequences of sea level rise,” said WISSARD project researcher and Montana State University graduate student Alex Michaud. “The next generation will have to deal with the things that we do not confront.”

In the wake of these environmental discoveries, Tulaczyk, among other WISSARD project researchers, is preparing a KISSME (Kamb Ice Stream Shear Margin Evolution) project that will be proposed in April. KISSME will aim to research the movement of ice as it relates to speed and melting rate of the subglacial features to further determine its melting rate.

When it comes to global warming and sea level rise, some are optimistic and others maintain that it’s irreversible. Tulaczyk argues that reversing glacier melt is possible, but it is ultimately up to the people to put in the effort required to reverse it.

“You have to be careful, doom and gloom is an easy marketing strategy. It would take a lot,” Tulaczyk said. “There are two questions. Is it doable in theory … or will we do it? It is doable, but I am much less convinced that we will do it.”