Lake Mercer lies 4,000 feet below a glacier in west Antarctica. It’s never before been accessed, but this winter, a Sacramento State film professor will head there to chronicle humanity’s first time dipping their toes in the freezing waters.
Kathy Kasic is an assistant film professor in the communications studies department at Sacramento State. She started teaching at Sac State this year, and is already making subglacial waves.
She left town Dec. 2 for six weeks in Antarctica with the Subglacial Antarctic Lakes Scientific Access team. The team is 50 strong, including scientists, support staff, and drillers.
She’ll be camping on ice in a two-person tent less than 500 miles from the South Pole, with scientific labs built inside shipping containers.
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“50 people in a small little ice village,” Kasic said with a laugh. “I like to say that it’s extreme ice fishing.”
The mission is to drill into Lake Mercer, a subglacial lake twice the size of Manhattan, which lies three-quarters of a mile below the Whillans Ice Plain. The SALSA scientists will study its hydrology, geology and geomicrobiology.
The film will follow the SALSA scientists through their daily activities as they prepare and drill into the lake, and Kasic will chronicle anything they find.
“I expect it to be exhausting,” Kasic said, “but at the same time ... every time I hold a camera in my hands, I end up somehow engaging with life in a different way. I see the world through the lens and I become much more aware of every detail that’s happening, which I really love. I love watching things unfold, and that’s what I’m expecting to do there.”
It’s unknown what the team will find under the glacier, Kasic said, but she’s hoping for something that will look good on film.
“We don’t really think we’ll find fish,” Kasic said. “But I keep holding out hope because I want fish to be in the camera. It’s hard to film bacteria! They just don’t do much.”
“I’m kind of hoping for some fish, maybe some freshwater crabs ... even a worm, I’d be okay with a worm!” Kasic said with a laugh.
The team is taking painstaking steps to make sure the lake won’t be contaminated by their expedition, said Kasic.
They’ll use a hot water drill, and all equipment, including Kasic’s cameras, will be sterilized by UV filtration technology before it descends down the 4,000-foot tunnel into the ice.
Kasic and 10 other principal investigators from eight U.S. institutions applied for a National Science Foundation grant to fund this research and were approved in 2016.
They planned the expedition for three years and have collaborators worldwide. The journey to move equipment from the nearest Antarctic base, McMurdo Station, began last year and was chronicled in a film called “The Traverse,” made by Montana State University graduate student Billy Collins.
Collins will join Kasic this winter to help make the documentary. Because of Collins’ film, Kasic can estimate how her equipment will perform in the bitter cold. Batteries run down faster because of the chill, Kasic said, and they need special gloves to operate the touch screens.
They’ll also send a remote-operated vehicle with a light-and-camera rig into the lake to get shots of the underwater environment, as well as a camera attached to a heavy weight, Kasic said.
Kasic has had much experience filming the natural world. Her work has been shown on BBC, Discovery, National Geographic and PBS.
Kasic taught film for six years at Montana State, where she earned her master’s degree in science and natural history filmmaking.
While at Montana State, Kasic founded the Center for the Communication of Science. Before that, she was a biologist, earning a bachelors and master’s degree at the University of Texas.
Because planes will come to the field camp intermittently to pick up samples, Kasic will be able to transport film and images which will be posted online. The expedition will be chronicled on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as well as the SALSA Antarctica field blog.