The Hidden World Beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet | John Priscu | TEDxBozeman

TEDx Talks
27 May 201311:18
EducationalLearning
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TLDRIn this insightful presentation, a seasoned researcher recounts 30 years of Antarctic exploration, challenging the notion of the continent as a lifeless wasteland. The speaker details the discovery of vast lakes and river systems beneath the ice, including the 3,000-foot deep Lake Vostok, comparable in size to Lake Ontario. The narrative culminates in the groundbreaking expedition to Lake Woolens, where the team successfully drilled through the ice and found evidence of life, reshaping our understanding of Antarctica as a dynamic ecosystem integral to global climate change. The speaker also hints at future explorations, including potential life on other moons within our solar system, emphasizing the need for innovative thinking and exploration to make new discoveries.

Takeaways
  • ๐ŸŒ The speaker has been working in Antarctica for about 30 years, starting as a junior faculty member at MSU.
  • ๐Ÿ“š Early explorers described Antarctica as a dead continent, but the speaker, with a biological background, was skeptical of this view.
  • ๐Ÿ” Antarctica is the fifth largest continent, twice the size of Australia, and 99% covered with ice that averages almost two miles thick.
  • โ„๏ธ The continent holds 70% of the planet's fresh water, and its melting could raise sea levels by about 200 feet.
  • ๐Ÿ” In the year 2000, an international group of specialists was formed to search for life and understand the presence of liquid water in Antarctica.
  • ๐Ÿ—บ๏ธ The current view of Antarctica includes over 200 lakes and river systems that rival the Amazon in size, as revealed by satellite images and research.
  • ๐Ÿš€ The speaker was part of a team that explored one of these systems, Lake Woolens, which was previously only theorized to exist.
  • ๐Ÿ› ๏ธ The expedition to Lake Woolens involved a large-scale operation, including 14 Caterpillar tractors and a 2-week journey to the field site.
  • ๐Ÿง‘โ€๐Ÿ”ฌ The team worked around the clock for three weeks, using a special drill to reach the bottom of the lake and collect samples.
  • ๐Ÿฆ  The discovery of life in the Antarctic lakes challenged the perception of Antarctica as a lifeless continent.
  • ๐ŸŒŒ The speaker is now involved with NASA, focusing on the potential for life in the oceans under the ice of moons in our solar system.
Q & A
  • How long has the speaker been working in Antarctica?

    -The speaker has been working in Antarctica for about 30 years.

  • What was the initial perception of Antarctica according to early explorers?

    -Early explorers portrayed Antarctica as a dead continent with no life, full of doom and gloom.

  • Why did the speaker disagree with the early explorers' view of Antarctica as a dead continent?

    -The speaker, coming from a biological background, could not accept such a large piece of real estate on Earth being lifeless.

  • What is the size of Antarctica in comparison to other continents?

    -Antarctica is twice the size of Australia and is the fifth largest continent on Earth.

  • What are some of the extreme environmental conditions of Antarctica?

    -Antarctica is the highest, driest, and coldest continent, with an average temperature of minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit and the coldest recorded temperature being minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

  • What is the significance of the ice covering Antarctica in terms of Earth's freshwater?

    -Antarctica is covered by ice that is 99% of its surface, with an average thickness of almost two miles, holding 70% of the planet's freshwater.

  • What impact would the melting of Antarctica's ice have on sea levels?

    -If Antarctica's ice melts, sea levels would rise about 200 feet.

  • What was the purpose of the international meeting in Tokyo in the year 2000?

    -The purpose of the meeting was to assemble a group of specialists to search for life and determine the presence of liquid water on Antarctica.

  • How many lakes are believed to exist under the ice in Antarctica according to the speaker's research?

    -There are over 200 lakes believed to exist under the ice in Antarctica.

  • What was the name of the lake explored by the team the speaker was chief scientist on?

    -The lake explored by the team was called Lake Woolens.

  • What challenges did the team face during their expedition to Lake Woolens?

    -The team faced challenges such as getting equipment and supplies to the remote location, dealing with warming temperatures causing the ice and snow to be warmer than usual, and the initial aircraft getting stuck upon landing.

  • What was the main goal of the research conducted at Lake Woolens?

    -The main goal was to explore the lake, confirm its existence, and discover if there is life beneath the ice.

  • What safety and environmental protocols did the team follow during their research?

    -The team wore Tyvek suits to keep the environment clean and maintain the integrity of the samples, demonstrating environmental stewardship.

  • What was the outcome of the research conducted at Lake Woolens?

    -The research confirmed the existence of the lake and revealed the presence of life beneath the ice.

  • How did the discovery at Lake Woolens change the perception of Antarctica?

    -The discovery transformed Antarctica's view from a dead, white block to a living ecosystem that plays a role in climate change and is part of the blue planet.

  • What is the speaker's current involvement with NASA and the outer solar system?

    -The speaker is involved with NASA in defining studies and planning a mission to Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, to explore the possibility of life in its subsurface ocean.

Outlines
00:00
๐ŸŒ Rediscovering Antarctica: From Dead Continent to Living Ecosystems

The speaker reflects on their 30-year career working in Antarctica, which began as a junior faculty member at MSU. Initially, Antarctica was viewed as a lifeless, harsh environment, often depicted as a 'dead continent' in early explorers' accounts. However, the speaker, with a background in biology, was troubled by this perception, especially considering Antarctica's sizeโ€”twice that of Australia and the fifth largest continent on Earth. The continent's unique characteristics, such as being the highest, driest, and coldest, were highlighted, along with the alarming fact that 99% of it is covered by ice, which is melting and contributing to rising sea levels. The speaker's journey to challenge the prevailing view of Antarctica involved leading an international team to search for life and liquid water on the continent. The discovery of over 200 lakes, including the massive Lake Vostok, and river systems beneath the ice sheet has revolutionized our understanding of Antarctica as a continent teeming with life and ecological importance.

05:02
๐Ÿšœ Expedition to Lake Woolens: Unveiling Antarctica's Hidden Depths

The narrative shifts to the speaker's personal account of an expedition to Lake Woolens in Antarctica. The logistical challenges of conducting research in such a remote and inhospitable environment are underscored by the description of setting up a large-scale 'camping expedition' with the necessary equipment and supplies. The team's journey to the field site involved flying in supplies, using icebreakers, and traversing 800 miles with 14 Caterpillar tractors pulling sleds loaded with gear. The arduous trek followed the trail of Robert Falcon Scott, adding a historical dimension to the expedition. Upon arrival, the team faced further challenges, including an aircraft getting stuck in the snow, which had to be freed before continuing. The establishment of a field camp with living quarters, a skiway for aircraft, and round-the-clock work to drill through the ice to reach the lake is detailed. The use of Tyvek suits for environmental cleanliness during sampling highlights the scientific rigor and the team's commitment to preserving the integrity of their findings. The culmination of the expedition was the discovery of life in the lake, marking a significant moment in the study of Antarctica's biodiversity.

10:02
๐Ÿ›ธ Expanding Horizons: From Antarctic Exploration to Outer Space

In the final paragraph, the speaker transitions from their terrestrial Antarctic research to the broader implications for space exploration. The newfound understanding of Antarctica as a living ecosystem with potential implications for climate change has reshaped the global perception of the continent. The speaker's involvement with NASA and the study of extraterrestrial moons, particularly Europa, is discussed. The presence of oceans beneath the ice of these moons suggests the possibility of life beyond Earth, a tantalizing prospect that drives current research and future missions. The speaker emphasizes the need to think and explore beyond traditional boundaries, encapsulating the spirit of discovery that has propelled both Antarctic and space exploration. The narrative concludes with a call to action, urging the scientific community and society at large to embrace the challenge of finding life in the most unexpected places.

Mindmap
Keywords
๐Ÿ’กAntarctica
Antarctica is the Earth's southernmost continent, characterized by its extreme cold, dryness, and ice coverage. It is described in the script as the highest, driest, and coldest continent, largely viewed as a 'dead' continent due to its harsh conditions. The speaker challenges this perception by highlighting the discovery of lakes and potential ecosystems beneath the ice.
๐Ÿ’กExplorers
Explorers in the context of the video are individuals who undertook early expeditions to Antarctica. They often described the continent as a lifeless, hostile environment. The speaker references these accounts to contrast them with modern scientific findings that reveal hidden ecosystems beneath the ice.
๐Ÿ’กLakes
Lakes in the video refer to subglacial bodies of water discovered beneath Antarctica's ice. These lakes, such as Lake Vostok and Lake Whillans, are highlighted as evidence of potential life and active hydrological systems. The speaker discusses the discovery of over 200 lakes, emphasizing the presence of liquid water in an otherwise frozen landscape.
๐Ÿ’กIce Sheet
The ice sheet is a massive layer of ice covering Antarctica. It averages almost two miles in thickness and contains 70% of the world's fresh water. The video explains how the ice sheet is not static but dynamic, with rivers flowing underneath, altering our understanding of the continent's geology and ecology.
๐Ÿ’กMelting
Melting refers to the process of ice turning into water due to rising temperatures. The speaker points out that Antarctic ice is melting, contributing to rising sea levels, which could have significant global impacts. This melting also opens up new possibilities for discovering subglacial ecosystems.
๐Ÿ’กSatellite Images
Satellite images are used to observe and map the Antarctic landscape. In the video, they are crucial for identifying flat spots on the ice sheet that indicate the presence of subglacial lakes and rivers. These images provide indirect evidence supporting the existence of extensive hydrological networks beneath the ice.
๐Ÿ’กBiological Background
A biological background refers to the speaker's expertise in biology, which fuels their skepticism about Antarctica being a dead continent. This perspective drives the research and eventual discovery of life beneath the ice, challenging previous notions of Antarctica as a lifeless place.
๐Ÿ’กInternational Collaboration
International collaboration is key in the video for conducting Antarctic research. The speaker mentions assembling a team of specialists from various countries to explore and understand subglacial life. This collaboration highlights the global interest and effort in studying and preserving Antarctica.
๐Ÿ’กDrilling
Drilling in the context of the video involves creating boreholes in the ice to access subglacial lakes. This process is essential for directly sampling water and sediments to search for life. The speaker details the technical and logistical challenges faced during drilling operations in Antarctica.
๐Ÿ’กNASA
NASA is the U.S. space agency that collaborates with Antarctic researchers. In the video, NASA provides satellite data to map and study the continent's hidden lakes and rivers. This partnership underscores the intersection of space exploration technologies and Earth sciences in understanding remote environments.
Highlights

The speaker has been working in Antarctica for about 30 years, starting as a junior faculty member at MSU.

Early explorers portrayed Antarctica as a dead continent, which the speaker, with a biological background, disputed.

Antarctica is the fifth largest continent, twice the size of Australia, and 99% covered with ice.

The South Pole is at 10,000 feet, and the coldest temperature recorded is minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

Antarctica holds 70% of the planet's fresh water, and its melting could raise sea levels by 200 feet.

In the year 2000, an international group was formed to search for life and liquid water in Antarctica.

Over 200 lakes have been identified on Antarctica, including Lake Vostok, which is 3,000 feet deep and the size of Lake Ontario.

There are believed to be river systems in Antarctica that rival the size of the Amazon River.

The first exploration of one of these river systems was conducted by a team the speaker was chief scientist on.

Using satellite images, researchers identified flat spots on the continent where the ice sheet floats over lakes.

A video clip shows the dynamic nature of Antarctica's ice, with rivers flowing underneath.

The speaker describes the logistical challenges of setting up a research camp in Antarctica.

A special drill was used to reach the bottom of Lake Whillans, where life was discovered.

The research team worked around the clock, wearing tyvek suits to maintain cleanliness and sample integrity.

The discovery of life in Antarctica has transformed the way the continent is viewed, from a dead place to a living ecosystem.

The speaker is involved with NASA in defining studies on the potential for life on other moons in our solar system.

A mission to Europa is being planned, with the goal of landing and drilling through the ice to find life.

Transcripts
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