Statement of Task
This study will address the environmental and scientific protection standards needed to responsibly explore the subglacial lake environments found under continental-scale ice sheets. The motivations for this study are ensuring wise stewardship of these unique environments, including strict observance of environmental protection responsibilities under domestic and international laws and treaties, as well as determining how to collect the best possible samples for scientific study while minimizing site contamination and ensuring preservation for future scientific inquiry. The scientific rationale for setting standards will be developed and reported in a manner credible to the widest range of stakeholders and interested parties, including those from the international community. This rationale will provide important guidance for developing, testing, and verifying sensor deployment and sampling protocols to balance the value of the scientific information to be gained against the potential for alteration and/or contamination of the sites being studied.
Specifically, the committee will:
Define levels of “cleanliness” for equipment/devices entering subglacial lake environments necessary to assure that the environments are subject to minimal, reversible, or acceptable change caused by the introduction of either naturally occurring earth surface materials and life forms or anthropogenic substances.
Developing a sound scientific basis for contamination standards will require a number of steps. These include delineation of the most likely sources of contamination, description of methods that might be used to reduce these introductions (e.g., physical cleaning, sterilization, and coating of surfaces with anti-fouling materials), and discussion of methodologies that might be used to demonstrate that the acceptable levels of “cleanliness” have been achieved. This analysis should recognize that different stages of exploration may be subject to differing levels of environmental concern and that some activities have been reviewed and approved for use elsewhere. The committee will consider the protocols developed for planetary protection over the past 40 years by NASA and assess their utility, applicabil-
ity, transferability, and adaptability to subglacial lake environment exploration and research.
Recommend next steps needed to define an overall exploration strategy. The committee will use existing planning documents and lessons learned from previous activities that have penetrated and potentially contaminated subglacial environments as a starting point. The committee will consider (a) the merits and disadvantages of existing technology with respect to contamination, highlighting additional technological development that is needed, (b) procedures and additional scientific studies to ensure that the best available environmentally and scientifically sound practices are adhered to and contamination risks are reduced to acceptable levels during the entry and sampling of subglacial lake environments, (c) the costs and benefits in terms of scientific outcomes of exploring now versus later, and (d) potential targets among the many Antarctic lakes.