Priscu Peruses Polar Caps

Teeming ecosystems exist beneath the cold, harsh and icy surface of Antarctica. These ecosystems were the focus of a lecture delivered by Professor John C. Priscu of Montana State University titled “The Hidden World Beneath Polar Ice Sheets” as part of SUNY New Paltz’s Harrington STEM Lectures.

The lectures, which are sponsored by the School of Science and Engineering, focus on current interests of the scientific community and are open to the public. The Spring ‘17 series consists of three lectures, starting with Priscu’s.

Priscu received his PhD from the University of California, Davis studying high altitude lakes. While he still conducts his research on lakes, the ones he studies now are located beneath miles of ice on Earth’s fifth largest continent. 

“I got into field work and not just sitting in an office,” Priscu said. “The adventure was good, and it still drives me, but the science, once I started seeing how bizarre these systems were, kept me coming back.”

His research on the icy continent started in 1983 when he was given the opportunity to write a proposal to conduct research on subsurface lakes 20 feet under ice while living in New Zealand. His 34 years of research in Antarctica were built on foundation laid by Russia in the 1950s with the establishment of Vostock Station.

Projections by Russian scientists determined that pressure created by ice sheets could liquify water beneath them, though the studies were soon dropped. The theory was revitalized after the discovery of gem ice, which indicated to the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research that lakes did exist 4,000 meters under the ice in addition to a network of subglacial rivers.

Priscu pushed for 10 years to obtain funding from the United States to study the microbial ecosystems that could potentially be located in these lakes. At the same time, the United Kingdom — with funding from the Environmental Research Counsel — and Russia began to delve into studies on ecosystems in the lakes.

Though media outlets often described the research conducted by the United States, United Kingdom and Russia as a race, Priscu said that the teams collaborated to improve their research.

“I don’t like that, as a scientist,” Priscu said. “All of the scientists were on international teams to plan this and put it together. It just so happens that we were all there in one season.”

According to Priscu the microbial ecosystems they found were similar to those found near geothermal vents deep on the ocean floor. The organisms in the ecosystems use iron and sulfur to produce chemical energy whereas most use energy converted from light.

The studies conducted by Priscu and his team yielded over 4,000 species, which Priscu claimed was an unprecedented amount of biodiversity akin to that of most fresh water systems. Throughout the lecture, Priscu emphasized the conservation of these microbial ecosystems and Antarctica through environmental stewardship.

“I called it the largest microbial wetland,” Priscu said. “It really is with all of those rivers and lakes.”

The next Harrington STEM Lecture will take place on March 7 at 5 p.m. in Coykendall Science Building.