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Antarctic research project makes history, headlines

By Kari VanDerVeen
January 27, 2013

St. Olaf Professor of Physics Bob Jacobel examines snow layers in a shallow pit in Antarctica. Jacobel and St. Olaf Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Knut Christianson '05 are members of a research team that successfully drilled through 800 meters of ice to study a subglacial lake in western Antarctica.

In what the National Science Foundation calls "a first-of-its-kind feat of science and engineering," a research team in western Antarctica that includes St. Olaf faculty members Bob Jacobel (pictured) and Knut Christianson '05 successfully drilled through 800 meters of ice to reach a subglacial lake.

The water and sediment samples the team is retrieving from the lake have been isolated for thousands of years, and researchers are looking for signs of microscopic life. What they find may help scientists better understand how life can survive in extreme ecosystems.

The success of the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project has been featured by NBC, BBC News, Nature magazine, and the New York Times, among others.

The WISSARD team is comprised of 13 principal investigators — including Jacobel — from eight different academic institutions, with additional collaborators from around the world. At St. Olaf, the WISSARD project is part of the college's Center for Geophysical Studies of Ice and Climate.

As part of the WISSARD team, Jacobel and Christianson have been responsible for determining the geophysical characterization of the subglacial lake. The data they've gathered, which shows the dimensions and hydrology of the lake, played a crucial role in helping the team determine where to drill.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or vanderve@stolaf.edu.