Aquatic habitats beneath ice masses contain active microbial ecosystems capable of cycling important greenhouse gases, such as methane (CH4). A large methane reservoir is thought to exist beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, but its quantity, source and ultimate fate are poorly understood. For instance, O2 supplied by basal melting should result in conditions favourable for aerobic methane oxidation. Here we use measurements of methane concentrations and stable isotope compositions along with genomic analyses to assess the sources and cycling of methane in Subglacial Lake Whillans (SLW) in West Antarctica. We show that sub-ice-sheet methane is produced through the biological reduction of CO2 using H2. This methane pool is subsequently consumed by aerobic, bacterial methane oxidation at the SLW sediment–water interface. Bacterial oxidation consumes >99% of the methane and represents a significant methane sink, and source of biomass carbon and metabolic energy to the surficial SLW sediments. We conclude that aerobic methanotrophy may mitigate the release of methane to the atmosphere upon subglacial water drainage to ice sheet margins and during periods of deglaciation.
Subglacial microbial habitats are widespread in glaciated regions of our planet. Some of these environments have been isolated from the atmosphere and from sunlight for many thousands of years. Consequently, ecosystem processes must rely on energy gained from the oxidation of inorganic substrates or detrital organic matter. Subglacial Lake Whillans (SLW) is one of more than 400 subglacial lakes known to exist under the Antarctic ice sheet; however, little is known about microbial physiology and energetics in these systems. When it was sampled through its 800 m thick ice cover in 2013, the SLW water column was shallow (~2 m deep), oxygenated, and possessed sufficient concentrations of C, N, and P substrates to support microbial growth. Here, we use a combination of physiological assays and models to assess the energetics of microbial life in SLW. In general, SLW microorganisms grew slowly in this energy-limited environment. Heterotrophic cellular carbon turnover times, calculated from 3H-thymidine and 3H-leucine incorporation rates, were long (60 to 500 days) while cellular doubling times averaged 196 days. Inferred growth rates (average ~0.006 d−1) obtained from the same incubations were at least an order of magnitude lower than those measured in Antarctic surface lakes and oligotrophic areas of the ocean. Low growth efficiency (8%) indicated that heterotrophic populations in SLW partition a majority of their carbon demand to cellular maintenance rather than growth. Chemoautotrophic CO2-fixation exceeded heterotrophic organic C-demand by a factor of ~1.5. Aerobic respiratory activity associated with heterotrophic and chemoautotrophic metabolism surpassed the estimated supply of oxygen to SLW, implying that microbial activity could deplete the oxygenated waters, resulting in anoxia. We used thermodynamic calculations to examine the biogeochemical and energetic consequences of environmentally imposed switching between aerobic and anaerobic metabolisms in the SLW water column. Heterotrophic metabolisms utilizing acetate and formate as electron donors yielded less energy than chemolithotrophic metabolisms when calculated in terms of energy density, which supports experimental results that showed chemoautotrophic activity in excess of heterotrophic activity. The microbial communities of subglacial lake ecosystems provide important natural laboratories to study the physiological and biogeochemical behavior of microorganisms inhabiting cold, dark environments.
Subglacial Lake Whillans (SLW), West Antarctica, is an active component of the subglacial hydrological network located beneath 800 m of ice. The fill and drain behavior of SLW leads to long (years to decades) water residence times relative to those in mountain glacier systems. Here, we present the aqueous geochemistry of the SLW water column and pore waters from a 38-cm-long sediment core. Stable isotopes indicate that the water is primarily sourced from basal-ice melt with a minor contribution from seawater that reaches a maximum of ∼6% in pore water at the bottom of the sediment core. Silicate weathering products dominate the crustal (non-seawater) component of lake- and pore-water solutes, and there is evidence for cation exchange processes within the clay-rich lake sediments. The crustal solute component ranges from 6 meq L–1 in lake waters to 17 meq L–1 in the deepest pore waters. The pore-water profiles of the major dissolved ions indicate a more concentrated solute source at depth (>38 cm). The combination of significant seawater and crustal components to SLW lake and sediment pore waters in concert with ion exchange processes result in a weathering regime that contrasts with other subglacial systems. The results also indicate cycling of marine water sourced from the sediments back to the ocean during lake drainage events.
A clean hot-water drill was used to gain access to Subglacial Lake Whillans (SLW) in late January 2013 as part of the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project. Over 3 days, we deployed an array of scientific tools through the SLW borehole: a downhole camera, a conductivity–temperature–depth (CTD) probe, a Niskin water sampler, an in situ filtration unit, three different sediment corers, a geothermal probe and a geophysical sensor string. Our observations confirm the existence of a subglacial water reservoir whose presence was previously inferred from satellite altimetry and surface geophysics. Subglacial water is about two orders of magnitude less saline than sea water (0.37–0.41 psu vs 35 psu) and two orders of magnitude more saline than pure drill meltwater (<0.002 psu). It reaches a minimum temperature of –0.55°C, consistent with depression of the freezing point by 7.019 MPa of water pressure. Subglacial water was turbid and remained turbid following filtration through 0.45 μm filters. The recovered sediment cores, which sampled down to 0.8 m below the lake bottom, contained a macroscopically structureless diamicton with shear strength between 2 and 6 kPa. Our main operational recommendation for future subglacial access through water-filled boreholes is to supply enough heat to the top of the borehole to keep it from freezing.
Subglacial lakes were discovered beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet in the 1970’s and, given the presence of liquid water and saturated sediments, it has been debated whether or not these deep, cold biosphere habitats harbor active microbial communities. Subglacial Lake Whillans (SLW) was cleanly sampled in January 2013 with the goal of establishing the habitability and presence of life beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet. The aim of this graduate fellowship project was to further characterize the SLW carbon cycle, in particular, chemolithoautotrophic microbial processes through geochemical and microbiological methods. Geochemical analyses showed that sulfide oxidizing bacteria were active and contribute to mineral weathering in the surficial sediments of SLW. Long water residence times beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) create a mineral weathering regime in SLW that is distinctly different from subglacial habitats of mountain glaciers. Concentration and stable isotope measurements of methane confirm a reservoir of methane formed by methanogenic archaea beneath the WAIS. The modeling results show that this biological methane provides a source of energy to an active methane oxidizing population at the sediment-water interface. The methane also is modeled to be an important source of carbon for biomass synthesis in the methane oxidizing population, with rates of biomass incorporation similar to that of ammonia oxidizing archaea in the SLW water column. These results provide evidence that the sub ice sheet environment provides favorable conditions and substrates to support an active microbial ecosystem, thus expanding the extent of the biosphere to include the area beneath the WAIS and, possibly, the entire Antarctic Ice Sheet.