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Indiana Jones and the Antarctic Lake

DSC_0043Piles of papers and books with esoteric titles like Principles of Glacier Mechanics are strewn about both ends of the L-shaped desk. The middle portion of the lengthier appendage is cleared of debris for a laptop, and a map on screen depicts the warped contours of an ice sheet located on the Earth’s most mysterious land mass.

Seated behind the desk in his first-floor office on UC Santa Cruz’s wooded campus, glacier expert and native Pole Slawek Tulaczyk peers at the Antarctic image through a pair of wide-rimmed spectacles that resemble laboratory safety goggles. His dark brown hair is mussed at the peak and greying at the sides, and his belly bulges underneath a green plaid button down and fleece vest.

Tulaczyk could be cast simply as the brilliant academician that he is. But, as he explains the passion behind his research into Antarctica’s glaciers, it’s clear that there’s more lurking beneath the professorial archetype. 

“Certainly, the advantage or the draw of working on Antarctica is that it is like another planet,” he says, his voice punctuated by a Polish inflection. “When I go and I do work elsewhere like even Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, in other places, it’s just a trip. In Antarctica, it’s still an expedition. We’ve globalized the planet so much that this is the continent that’s kind of forgotten, out of the way. So, one personal appeal is that it does really feel exploratory, even if it has to be scientifically justified.”

He values the harsh field experience—huddling in unheated tents during bitter nights and trudging around the barren wasteland of the world’s last frontier on Antarctic summer days—almost as much as the scientific conclusions he makes upon returning home to sunny Santa Cruz.

In other words, he’s a portly version of Indiana Jones. He just happens to specialize in the relics and dynamics of glaciers rather than ancient civilizations. And, he’s real. 

Next fall, Tulaczyk will fly down to McMurdo Station, an Antarctic research center on the southern tip of Ross Island, to take on another adventure—the first American attempt at accessing the waters of a subglacial lake.

Friction from shearing, or the movement of the glacier over the rocky base; geothermal energy from the Earth’s core; and a little help from the pressure of the shelf itself produce enough heat to create water at certain spots. 

Last month, a Russian team of scientists successfully drilled (after a decade) down to the waters of Lake Vostok, a Lake Ontario-size body of freshwater more than two miles below the East Antarctic ice sheet. With no retrieval equipment other than ice cores, the researchers must wait for the lake water that rushed up their bore hole to freeze before collecting and evaluating it next research season for new microbial life and a wealth of historical climate data.

DSC_0224Meanwhile, Tulaczyk and his team will be digging their way toward Lake Whillans, a much smaller and shallower body underneath the continent's western ice sheet, and toward the first, and potentially groundbreaking, analysis of Antarctica's subglacial water samples. The American team's more advanced drilling methodology, which involves pumping hot water through a large filter and UV chamber to remove organic material before it melts a bore hole, will prevent contamination and ensure the reliability of the samples.

The Russian's use of petroleum derivatives and other chemicals to drill has created controversy and raised questions about the validity of any discoveries they may claim.

"They run into problems potentially with contamination and when the water from the lake was rushing into the bore hole and may have mixed with the bore hole fluid," Tulaczyk says. "And then you have to somehow argue that whatever you find in that refrozen ice is not from the bore hole fluid but from the lake itself, which may be difficult."

"My impression is that their main goal was just to. . . it's kind of like putting a flag on a place. And they’ve done it; they’ve done it successfully," he adds. "The scientific payback out of their effort: we’ll see how impactful it’s gonna be."

Despite the Russians' questionable drilling strategy, the explorer in him can't help but admire the grit and persistence involved in the feat of reaching a depth of 12,366 feet.

"In a place like where they were, high on a plateau, minus 50 degrees, yes, it would be easy to pick on things, but on the other hand, you know, any scientific achievement in Antarctica is a scientific achievement," he says. "And these guys have been there for decades. They've worked hard in terribly horrible conditions."

The American team hopes to find microbial life, but Tulaczyk admits that discovering "some weird creatures that are maybe a bit more" complex than microbes would be more compelling.

"I mean, it would really show how persistent and how resilient life can be," he says. "Because these environments have been cut off from light and almost all our biological production on the surface is so vibrant because you have source of energy in the form of solar light."

The low-energy environment mirrors that of water thought to lie under the ice shelf of Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, and if organisms are indeed discovered at Whillans, they could have significant implications for the existence of extraterrestrial life there. DSC_0194

Because Antarctica is so cold and thoroughly encased in ice, even a dramatic rise in atmospheric temperatures due to climate change will not have significant effects on the surface for thousands of years. But the warming of subtropical saline waters that lick the edges of the western ice sheet, which sits below sea level rather than above it, could break off significant portions and create stability problems for the interior.

Tulaczyk points to the more wrinkled surfaces on the map and begins explaining that these represent the faster moving portions of the shelf, called ice streams. They can travel up to four feet closer to the coast in a single day. 

Preliminary research reveals that these higher velocity glacial surfaces usually boast a wet base, like a lake. Surfaces without a watery foundation move roughly the same distance in a whole year. 

By analyzing sediments for coarse grain and measuring pressure fluctuations in and around Whillans' waters, Tulaczyk hopes to establish how often subglacial floods from deeper lakes near the center of the continent surge toward the western end and push ice closer to the melting agent of the tides. That way, he can estimate how much the ocean might rise.  

Tulaczyk ascribes order and energy to what otherwise may appear to be an inert and lifeless hinterland and does so with verve.

DSC_0245 Not every scientist revels in the Antarctic excursion as much as he does.

“The experience itself is very selective,” he says. “Some people will go and hate it. And some people will go and love it and will wanna go back year after year. So, you know, it’s just that the people who don’t like it, don’t come back,” he adds chuckling.  

It's clear that Tulaczyk has married his wanderlust to his research goals. And soon, he’ll push aside the digital map, walk out of the office, and explore that union on the ice. 

--Ryan Jacobs / photos courtesy of Slawek Tulaczyk

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