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British team heads to Antarctica to explore hidden lake

11 October 2011, by Tamera Jones

British engineers will next week set off for Antarctica to prepare the ground for an ambitious exploration project to search for life in an isolated lake three kilometres beneath solid ice, called Lake Ellsworth.

Seismic drilling

Scientists can determine the depth, length, width and position of subglacial lakes from seismic waves caused by the explosions.

A year later, in October 2012, British scientists plan to collect water and sediment samples from the lake, which may have been hidden from the rest of life on Earth for up to a million years.

They hope to find species in the water that might have survived in one of the most hostile environments on our planet. This may tell them about the constraints for life on Earth. If they're successful, it raises the prospect of finding alien life in the oceans beneath the surface ice of Jupiter's moon Europa. But if they find nothing, it will reveal the limits for life on our planet.

They also hope that sediment samples from the bottom of the lake will yield clues about when the West Antarctic Ice Sheet last collapsed.

Scientists first came across so-called subglacial lakes beneath the vast Antarctic ice sheets back in the 1970s. So far a whopping 387 have been discovered.

'Putting the drill in place this Antarctic season means we can hit the ground running next October.'
Professor Martin Siegert, the University of Edinburgh

'At first, the lakes didn't seem particularly interesting and only captured the imagination of glaciologists,' says Professor Martin Siegert from the University of Edinburgh, principal investigator for the Lake Ellsworth project.

'It was only with the discovery of Lake Vostok underneath the East Antarctic Ice Sheet in the 1990s that people thought there might be life in this extreme habitat.'

To get to the lake and to minimise the risk of contaminating this pristine environment, engineers will use hot water to drill through the three kilometres of ice, which the team estimates will take three days.

Once a hole is made in the ice, researchers will lower a sterilised, titanium probe to measure and sample water from the lake, followed by a sterilised corer to extract sediment from the bottom of it.

'No-one has ever built a probe to sample a subglacial lake before, so it's a new piece of equipment. And it all has to be done clean, to space industry standard. Designing the probe and corer, testing them and demonstrating they work has been challenging and has taken time,' says Siegert.

This first stage will involve transporting almost 70 tonnes of equipment in eight shipping containers 16,000 kilometres from the UK to a site above Lake Ellsworth in a remote region of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Hot water drilling

Hot water drilling at Lake Ellsworth.

The equipment will be transported by boat to Punta Arenas in Chile, then by aeroplane to Union Glacier, 300 kilometres away from the Lake Ellsworth site. The engineers will then use a tractor train, travelling at around 10 kilometres per hour, to get the kit across the ice to the site.

The project is so ambitious, it has to run over two Antarctic seasons. 'There wouldn't have been time to deploy all the equipment and do the science all in the same season,' says Siegert. 'Putting the drill in place this Antarctic season means we can hit the ground running next October.'

Lake Ellsworth is likely to be the first subglacial lake to be measured and sampled. The Russians are also attempting to collect water from Lake Vostok.

Scientists and engineers from the Natural Environment Research Council's British Antarctic Survey and National Oceanography Centre, eight UK universities and several UK businesses are involved in the UK-led project. They will use equipment that has never been built before.

Engineers from the National Oceanography Centre designed and built the five-metre-long water sampling probe, while the British Antarctic Survey and University of Durham worked with an Austrian company to design and build the sediment corer.

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Your comments

As a lay person how do I get involved in this project? I am applying to Bangor to study Oceanography. Are they one of the Universities involved in this project?

Paul Quinton, London
Friday, 14 October 2011 - 15:39

I just hope that the investigators ensure that there is no contamination of this pristine environment. If life is found after being probably isolated so long the results could be very important. It is possible of course that microbes could pass through ground water into and out of these lakes and therefore another much larger ecosystem could exist throughout the area.

Malcolm Jones, Wales UK
Monday, 17 October 2011 - 11:18

It is for certain that explorers will contaminate the pristine Vostok lake,as they did else where. It will take only a second to spoil a billion billion year old natural wonder.

pradeep kumar, India
Thursday, 27 October 2011 - 09:25


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