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Inland Aquatic Environments

Antarctic Subglacial Lakes

Martin Siegert (1), Irina Alekhina (2), Jill Mikucki (3), Andres Rivera (4), Sun Bo (5), Helen A. Fricker (6), Dusty Schroeder (7), Bernd Kulessa (8), Christine Dow (9)

(1) Imperial College, UK
(2) AARI, Russia
(3) University of Tennessee, USA
(4) CECS, Chile
(5) PRIC, China
(6) Scripps Institution of Oceanography, USA
(7) Stanford University, USA
(8) University of Swansea, UK
(9) University of Waterloo, Canada

Over 400 lakes exist beneath the Antarctic ice sheet. They range from giant stable lakes at the centre of the ice sheet, isolated from the atmosphere for millions of years, to small through-flow pockets of water beneath fast-flowing ice streams. Subglacial lakes likely harbour unique micro-organisms, adapted to the extreme conditions such as pressure and darkness under the ice, and records of ice and climate change from when the ice sheet first formed. Uncovering their microbiological and climatological secrets requires direct access and sampling of these pristine environments. SCAR has been involved in guiding plans for subglacial lakes access and exploration, ensuring experiments are conducted in a safe, clean and environmentally sustainable manner. A formal code of conduct was accepted by the ATCM in 2011 and a revised version endorsed in 2017. To date, only two lakes at the edge of the West Antarctic ice sheet have been sampled cleanly for water and sediment – subglacial lakes Whillans (in January 2013) and Mercer (in December 2018).

Subglacial lakes are bodies of liquid water that lie beneath the Antarctic ice sheet, in the interface between the ice and the bed material. With ice acting as an insulator, typical levels of geothermal heat flux are sufficient to warm the ice base to the pressure melting point, despite surface temperatures tens of centigrade below freezing. Subglacial water flows under the combined forces of gravity and the pressure of the ice above and can pond in subglacial hollows and troughs, forming lakes1.

Like any other continent, Antarctica’s bed morphology involves a complex system of mountains, valleys and lowlands. Under certain circumstances, water can fill entire subglacial troughs leading to giant lakes, such as the 280 km long Lake Vostok – one of the world’s top ten largest freshwater lakes in terms of depth, surface area and volume2. Such lakes are located near ice divides and may contain undisturbed water, and sediment dating back millions of years. Towards the ice sheet margins, subglacial water gathers into networks of distributed and channelized systems3, lubricating the beds of the fast-flowing ice streams4. Here, water can collect in lakes, filling a bed depression to the level at which it discharges downstream and subsequently refills5, 6.

There are a wide variety of subglacial lake systems beneath the Antarctic ice sheet, ranging from large stable lakes at the ice sheet centre (e.g. Lake Vostok), to smaller stable lakes scattered across the ice bed (e.g. Lake CECS7 and Lake Ellsworth), and the small hydrologically “active” lakes predominantly located close to the ice-sheet margin (e.g. Lake Whillans5) (Figure 1).

Figure 1. The types and locations of Antarctic subglacial lakes. Colours/shapes indicate the geophysical nature of investigations undertaken at each site: Black/triangle = RES, yellow = seismic sounding, green = gravitational field mapping, red/circle = surface height change measurement, square = shape identified from ice surface feature. Lake Vostok is shown in outline. Taken from Siegert (2018)(27).

The first subglacial lake observation was made in 1969 by airborne radio-echo sounding (RES) beneath Sovetskya Station in central East Antarctica – the flat and continuously bright radio-wave reflections unmistakably as a consequence of deep (>10 m) freshwater beneath the ice8, 9. Since then, RES has been used to detect >200 lakes across the Antarctic continent10. While RES is a good determinant of pooled basal water, it cannot be used to measure lake depths since radio-waves are absorbed in water for all but the shallowest and purest water bodies11. Instead, seismic sounding is appropriate to make direct measurements of water depth. To date, the bases of only four lakes have been measured successfully by seismics; Lake Vostok (~1000 m deep)12, Lake Ellsworth (~160 m)13, Lake Mercer (~15 m), and a lake at South Pole (~30 m)14. For the larger lakes, such as Lake Vostok, where the cavity of water is substantial, gravity measurements can be used to infer the shape of the lake bed, which when used in conjunction with seismic data can reveal the bathymetry at a macro-level15. In the future electromagnetic geophysical techniques offer the potential to create multi-dimensional images of subglacial lakes and provide insight on their salinities9, 16, as trialled in the austral summer of 2018/19 by the US Antarctic program on Lake Mercer.

Active subglacial lakes can be resolved using satellite-altimeter-derived measurements of ice-surface elevation change; during filling the ice surface rises by several meters and, similarly, during discharge it lowers5, 17. Satellite altimetry has been used to delineate over 120 so-called hydrologically ‘active’ lakes, including Lakes Whillans and Mercer in West Antarctica18. However, often RES data from the same sites do not reveal ‘classic’ looking lake reflectors, potentially due to the water filling into a complex series of connected smaller hollows rather than a single basin, and sometimes in unexpected locations such as the lee side of subglacial obstacles to ice flow19. In some cases, water has been shown to exit one lake and fill into another several hundred kilometres away, forming a temporary river between the two. Between 1996 and 1998, the flux of water flowing between two active lakes in East Antarctica was estimated to be similar to the River Thames in London17.

After Lake Vostok was identified as a giant lake beneath central East Antarctica in 1996, subglacial lakes have been the subject of significant media and scientific attention. As unique environments, isolated from the rest of the planet for hundreds of thousands of years, they are hypothesised to be habitats for unusual, specially-adapted microbes and recorders of ancient climate change, beginning in time where ice cores end. These hypotheses are fully testable if subglacial lakes are accessed and sampled.

SCAR became involved in guiding plans for subglacial lake exploration in 2000, ensuring international dialogue and exchange of scientific findings and plans. Key to their involvement was an appreciation that these pristine subglacial lake environments should be protected and preserved during access sampling and in situ experiments. SCAR first commissioned a Group of Specialists, which then became a formal scientific research programme named Subglacial Antarctic Lake Environments – SALE. Separately, the US National Research Council organised a review of subglacial lake exploration, to understand how scientific ambition could be met while ensuring environmental protection20. Following this, SCAR developed a Code of Conduct on subglacial access, which was accepted at the 2011 ATCM (held in Buenos Aires) and in revised form in at the 2017 ATCM (in Beijing). It explains the scientific basis for what cleanliness means, and details how this requirement can be achieved during in situ measurement and sampling21.

The 2011-12 and 2012-13 Antarctic seasons were pivotal for subglacial lake exploration. Three exploration programmes were conducted, with varying degrees of success. First, in February 2012, a Russian team extended the Vostok ice core to penetrate into Lake Vostok22. By allowing lake water to freeze into the borehole and reactivating the corer the following seasons, a ‘sample’ of lake water was recovered, albeit not using sterile procedures. Second, in December 2012, a UK team failed to activate a purpose-built hot-water drill to access and sample Lake Ellsworth in West Antarctica23. Third, in January 2013, a US team, also using a clean hot-water drill24, successfully sampled the active subglacial Lake Whillans, demonstrating that Antarctic subglacial lakes contain microbial life25.

In 2015, an international meeting was held at the UK Royal Society’s Chicheley Hall to share lessons on the various deep-drilling missions, and to identify future plans and ambitions26. Subsequently, in December 2018 and January 2019, Lake Mercer was accessed and the water column and sediments were sampled successfully by the US programme. The Lake Mercer science team hypothesized that microbial transformations in this lake will be driven to a large extent by relict marine organic matter deposited during a past climate scenario (J.C. Priscu, personal communication). Samples from the Mercer project are currently being analyzed and results are forthcoming. While many lessons have been learnt on how to conduct deep drilling missions, major scientific questions remain unanswered. Direct sampling of other lakes, such as deep, hydraulically stable Lake Vostok, will be required to address these questions.

See also Siegert 2018 (reference 27).

Late 1960s

Trials of airborne radio echo-sounding revolutionise glacial and sub-glacial data acquisition.


First Antarctic subglacial lake discovered near Sovetskaya Station.


First inventory compiled of 17 Antarctic subglacial lakes.


Lake Vostok discovered during the second season of a programme of systematic Antarctic ice sheet surveying carried out by the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Technical University of Denmark (TUD).


Lake Ellsworth discovered during the third season of surveying by the SPRI / NSF / TUD collaboration.


Four seasons of Soviet airborne geophysical surveying discovers a further 16 subglacial lakes.


Lake Vostok revealed as one of the world’s largest freshwater bodies.


Second inventory compiled of 77 Antarctic subglacial lakes.


Italian surveying in the region of Dome C reveals a further 14 subglacial lakes.


SCAR forms the Subglacial Antarctic Lake Environments (SALE) Group of Specialists.


The Russian Federation circulates the first draft Comprehensive Environmental Evaluation (CEE) for penetrating subglacial Lake Vostok.


The 6th meeting of the Committee for Environmental Protection discusses the draft CEE prepared by the Russian Federation and advises the 26th meeting of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) on its findings.


SCAR SALE becomes a formal SCAR Research Programme.


Third inventory compiled of 145 Antarctic subglacial lakes.


Subglacial lake discharges and inflows discovered.


The Russian Federation circulates the final version of its CEE to penetrate subglacial Lake Vostok.


The UK circulates a draft CEE for the exploration and sampling of subglacial Lake Ellsworth.


The 14th meeting of the CEP discusses the draft CEE prepared by the UK (for accessing subglacial Lake Ellsworth) and advises the 34th ATCM on its findings.


The UK circulates the final version of its CEE to penetrate subglacial Lake Ellsworth.


SCAR prepares and disseminates a Code of Conduct for the Exploration and Research of Subglacial Aquatic Environments.


Fourth inventory compiled of 381 Antarctic subglacial lakes.


The Russian Antarctic Expedition accesses and takes a water sample of subglacial lake Vostok on 5th February 2012.


The UK-led mission to access Lake Ellsworth is halted due to technical issues.


The U.S. Antarctic Program accesses and samples subglacial Lake Whillans and demonstrates the ice-base to contain viable microorganisms.


Fifth inventory compiled of 402 Antarctic subglacial lakes.


ATCM 40 endorses SCAR’s Code of Conduct for the Exploration and Research of Subglacial Aquatic Environments by means of Resolution 2 (2017).


The U.S. Antarctic Program accesses and samples subglacial Lake Mercer, retrieving 60 litres of water and a ~1.7 m lake-bed sediment core.

Other information:

1. M.J. Siegert, Lakes beneath the ice sheet: The occurrence, analysis and future exploration of Lake Vostok and other Antarctic subglacial lakes. Annual Review of Earth & Planetary Sciences33, 215-245 (2005).

2. A. Kapitsa, J.K. Ridley, Q. Robin, M.J. Siegert, and I. Zotikov, Large deep freshwater lake beneath the ice of central East Antarctica. Nature 381, 684–686 (1996). doi:10.1038/381684a0.

3. D.M. Schroeder, D.D. Blankenship, D.A. Young, Evidence for a water system transition beneath Thwaites Glacier, West Antarctica. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Jul 23; 110(30): 12225-12228 (2013).

4. L.A. Stearns, B.E. Smith and G.S. Hamilton, Increased flow speed on a large East Antarctic outlet glacier caused by subglacial floods. Nature Geoscience 1, 827-831 (2008).

5. H.A. Fricker, T.A. Scambos, R. Bindschadler and L. Padman, An active subglacial water system in West Antarctica mapped from space. Science315(5818), 1544-1548 (2007).

6. H.A. Fricker, M.R. Siegfried, S.P. Carter and T.A. Scambos, A decade of progress in observing and modelling Antarctic subglacial water systems. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences. Jan 28; 374. doi: (2016).

7. A. Rivera, J. Uribe, R. Zamora and J. Oberreuter, Subglacial Lake CECs: Discovery and in situ survey of a privileged research site in West Antarctica. Geophysical Research Letters42, 3944–3953. doi:10.1002/2015gl063390 (2015).

8. Q. Robin, C.W.M. Swithinbank and B.M.E Smith, Radio echo exploration of the Antarctic ice sheet. International Symposium on Antarctic Glaciological Exploration (ISAGE), 3–7 September, 1968, Hanover, NH, 97–115 (1970).

9. M.J. Siegert, B. Kulessa, M. Bougamont, P. Christoffersen, K. Key, K.R. Andersen, A.D. Booth and A.M. Smith, Antarctic subglacial groundwater: a concept paper on its measurement and potential influence on ice flow, Geological Society, London, Special Publications461(1), 197-213, doi:10.1144/sp461.8 (2018).

10. M.J. Siegert, N. Ross and A. Le Brocq, Recent advances in understanding Antarctic subglacial lakes and hydrology. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, A.374, 20140306. (2016).

11. D.M. Schroeder, D.D. Blankenship, R.K. Raney and C. Grima, Estimating subglacial water geometry using radar bed echo specularity: application to Thwaites Glacier, West Antarctica. IEEE Geoscience and Remote Sensing Letters. Mar;12(3):443-7 (2015).

12. M.J. Siegert, S. Popov and M. Studinger,Subglacial Lake Vostok: a review of geophysical data regarding its physiographical setting. In, Subglacial Antarctic Aquatic Environments (M. Siegert, C. Kennicutt, B. Bindschadler, eds.). AGU Geophysical Monograph 192. Washington DC. 45-60 (2011).

13. J. Woodward, A.M. Smith, N. Ross, M. Thoma, H.F.J. Corr, E.C. King, M.A. King, K. Grosfeld, M. Tranter and M.J. Siegert, Location for direct access to subglacial Lake Ellsworth. Geophysical Research Letters37, L11501, doi:10.1029/2010GL042884 (2010).

14. L.E. Peters, S. Anandakrishnan, C.W. Holland, J.H. Horgan, D.D. Blankenship and D.E. Voigt, Seismic detection of a subglacial lake near the South Pole, Antarctica. Geophysical Research Letters 35, L23501, doi:10.1029/2008GL035704. (2008).

15. I.Y. Filina, D.D. Blankenship, M. Thoma, V. Lukin, V. Masolov and M. Sen, New 3D bathymetry and sediment distribution in Lake Vostok: Implication for pre-glacial origin and numerical modeling of the internal processes within the lake. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 276(1-2):106-114. doi: 10.1016/j.epsl.2008.09.012 (2008).

16. K. Key and M.R. Siegfried, The feasibility of imaging subglacial hydrology beneath ice streams with ground-based electromagnetics, Journal of Glaciology63(241):1-17, doi:10.1017/jog.2017.36 (2017).

17. D.J. Wingham, M.J. Siegert, A. Shepherd and A.S. Muir, Rapid discharge connects Antarctic subglacial lakes. Nature 440, 1033–1036. doi:10.1038/nature04660 (2006).

18. B.E. Smith, H.A. Fricker, I.R. Joughin and S. Tulaczyk, An inventory of active subglacial lakes in Antarctica detected by ICESat (2003–2008). Journal of Glaciology55, 573–595. doi:10.3189/002214 (2009).

19. M.J. Siegert, N. Ross, H. Corr, B. Smith, T. Jordan, R. Bingham, F. Ferraccioli, D. Rippin and A. Le Brocq, Boundary conditions of an active West Antarctic subglacial lake: implications for storage of water beneath the ice sheet. The Cryosphere8, 15-24. doi:10.5194/tc-8-15-2014 (2014).

20. National Research Council. Exploration of Antarctic Subglacial Aquatic Environments: Environmental and Scientific Stewardship. Washington, DC: US National Academy of Sciences (2007).

21. M.J. Siegert and M.C. Kennicutt, Governance of the exploration of subglacial Antarctica. Frontiers in Environmental Science 6:103. doi: 10.3389/fenvs.2018.00103 (2018).

22. V.V Lukin and N.I. Vasiliev, Technological aspects of the final phase of drilling borehole 5G and unsealing Vostok Subglacial Lake, East Antarctica. Annals of Glaciology55, 83–89. doi:10.3189/2014AoG65A002 (2014).

23. M.J. Siegert, K. Makinson, D. Blake, M. Mowlem and N. Ross, An assessment of deep-hot-water drilling as a means to undertake direct measurement and sampling of Antarctic subglacial lakes: experience and lessons learned from the Lake Ellsworth field season 2012–13. Annals of Glaciology55, 59–73. doi:10.3189/2014AoG65A008 (2014).

24. J.C. Priscu, A.M. Achberger, J.E. Cahoon, B.C. Christner, R.L. Edwards, W.L. Jones, A.B. Michaud, M.R. Siegfried, M.L. Skidmore, R.H. Spigel and G.W. Switzer, A microbiologically clean strategy for access to the Whillans Ice Stream subglacial environment. Antarctic Science25(5), pp.637-647 (2013).

25. B.C. Christner, J.C. Priscu, A.M. Achberger, C. Barbante, S.P. Carter, K. Christianson, A.B. Michaud, J.A. Mikucki, A.C. Mitchell, M.L. Skidmore, T.J. Vick-Majors and the WISSARD Science Team. A microbial ecosystem beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet. Nature 512, 310–313. doi:10.1038/nature13667 (2014).

26. M.J. Siegert, J.C. Priscu, I. Alekhina, J. Wadham and B. Lyons (eds.). Antarctic Subglacial Lake Exploration: first results and future plans. Transactions of the Royal Society of London, A. 374, issue 2059 (2016).

27. M.J. Siegert, A 60-year international history of Antarctic subglacial lake exploration. In, Siegert, M.J. Jamieson, S.S.R. & White, D.A. (eds). Exploration of Subsurface Antarctica: Uncovering Past Changes and Modern Processes. Geological Society, London, Special Publications461, 7-22. (2018).