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Science

Team Head to Antarctica to Explore Underground Lake

A team of engineers from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) will leave next week for Antarctica to begin the first stage of a scientific mission to collect water and sediment samples from Lake Ellsworth, a subglacial lake some three kilometres underneath the solid ice of Antarctica.

Lake Ellsworth has been hidden beneath the ice for thousands of years, untouched by the presence of humans, and could revolutionise the science of evolution of life on Earth, as well as providing vital clues about the history of our planet’s climate.

The lake is approximately 10 kilometres long and is estimated to be tens of metres deep. The BAS team of four engineers will be transporting some 70 tonnes of equipment as they travel the 16,000 kilometres from the UK to Lake Ellsworth on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

“Our task is to prepare the way for the ‘deep-field’ research mission that will take place next year,” said Subglacial Lake Ellsworth Programme Manager Chris Hill, who will be one of the four to leave next week. “In October 2012 we will return to the site with a team of 10 scientists and engineers to make a three kilometre bore hole through the ice using state-of-the-art hot water drilling technology. We will then lower a titanium probe to measure and sample the water followed by a corer to extract sediment from the lake.”

The researchers will be using ‘clean technology’ developed and manufactured by the space-industry standard, which will descend into pitch black conditions that have not had any contact with the rest of the world for thousands of years. Sediments on the lake bed may reveal clues about the history of life in the lake, and microbiologists are hoping that new forms of life will be discovered.

“Finding life in a lake that could have been isolated from the rest of the biosphere for up to half a million years will tell us so much about the potential origin of and constraints for life on Earth, and may provide clues to the evolution of life on other extraterrestrial environments,” said Dr David Pearce, Science Coordinator at BAS, who is part of the team leading the ‘search for life’ in the lake water and will go to Lake Ellsworth for stage two of the mission. “If we find nothing this will be even more significant because it will define limits at which life can no longer exist on the planet.”

“The exploration of subglacial Lake Ellsworth is a frontier science project with engineering and technology at the forefront,” said BAS Director, Professor Nicholas Owens. “It is hugely exciting for the scientists and engineers working within the consortium, which sees two of the Natural Environment Research Council’s centres of excellence – the British Antarctic Survey and the National Oceanography Centre — working in partnership with eight leading UK universities.

“Every piece of equipment is a bespoke design and has been built in partnership with several UK businesses therefore contributing to the UK economy. Also this innovative engineering and technology that is being developed to penetrate three kilometers through the ice without contaminating the pristine lake will lead the way for future explorations.”

“For almost 15 years we’ve been planning to explore this hidden world,” said the Lake Ellsworth Programme Principal Investigator, Professor Martin Siegert from the University of Edinburgh. “It’s only now that we have the expertise and technology to drill through Antarctica’s thickest ice and collect samples without contaminating this untouched and pristine environment.”

Source: British Antarctic Survey




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