UH scientists successfully sample subglacial lake

Study will provide clues to potential habitats on Mars and icy satellites in outer space

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Eric Gaidos, (808) 956-7897
School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology
Posted: Jun 28, 2006

Earlier this month, scientists from UH Mānoa‘s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST), in collaboration with Icelandic research institutes, successfully drilled into and sampled a lake deep beneath a glacier in Iceland. The lake and other subglacial lakes are the focus of studies of life in "extreme environments," and may resemble potential habitats on Mars and icy satellites in the outer Solar System.

The UH team included Associate Professor Eric Gaidos of the Department of Geology and Geophysics, Postdoctoral Fellow Brian Glazer (who will soon join the Department of Oceanography) and Mary Miller, a volunteer researcher. They were funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute through its lead team at the University of Hawaiʻi‘s Institute for Astronomy.

The UH team, with their U.S. and Icelandic collaborators, will study the lake‘s temperature profile and the retrieved water sample to understand the lake‘s structure and chemistry, and to determine whether microbial life is present and thriving in its perennially dark, near-freezing waters.

"Science is well-acquainted with marine life that survives on seafloor volcanoes in the absence of sunlight, so I fully expect that a community of microorganisms exists somewhere in the lake, and perhaps in our water sample," said Gaidos.

The lake, buried under 300 meters of ice and maintained by the heat of an active volcano, was 100 meters deep at the sampling location. To access the lake, the team used a unique hot-water drilling system, designed and constructed by their Icelandic collaborators, that melts a hole a few centimeters across through the ice. The water used to drill the hole is filtered, treated by ultraviolet radiation and heated to high temperature to sterilize it to minimize any contamination of the lake. A lake sample was retrieved using a unique water and gas tight sampler designed and built by SOEST. "A harmless dye was added to the water within the drill hole and because the retried sample was colorless, this confirmed that it was indeed from the lake," explained Gaidos.

The expedition follows a similarly successful expedition to another, nearby subglacial lake in 2002, in which Gaidos was involved.

"As with any new field research, we faced some unexpected problems as well as the expected challenge of working on a glacier," said Gaidos. "But dedication of the entire team paid off. Not only will we have a few answers, but we now have more questions that make us eager to return."

The research team plan to return to the site to conduct further studies next summer.

About the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
The School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) was established by the Board of Regents of the University of Hawaiʻi in 1988. SOEST brings together in a single focused ocean, earth sciences and technology group, some of the nation‘s highest quality academic departments, research institutes, federal cooperative programs, and support facilities to meet challenges in the ocean and earth sciences. Scientists at SOEST are supported by both state and federal funds as they endeavor to understand the subtle and complex interrelations of the seas, the atmosphere, and the earth. For more information, visit http://www.soest.hawaii.edu.

For more information, visit: http://www.soest.hawaii.edu