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Antarctica’s Subglacial Lake Ellsworth Will Keep Its Secrets For Now

After a decade of planning, and two weeks in the field, the Lake Ellsworth drilling program was cancelled for the year

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Barrels of fuel encased in snow at the Lake Ellsworth drilling site. Photo: Lake Ellsworth Live

Just over two weeks ago, a team of scientists and engineers set out on the daunting task of drilling into Antarctica’s Lake Ellsworth, a body of frigid water buried beneath 2 miles of glacier ice. Their quest was to investigate whether any microbes could survive in the hostile environment beneath the ice, choked off from the rest of the atmosphere for millions of years.

A few days into the operation, however, drilling stalled out when a piece of the drill’s boiler gave way. The Lake Ellsworth team was using a massive hot-water drill, a device that takes in purified water, heats it up and uses it to carve away at the thick glacier ice. The Ellsworth team brought in a replacement part, and drilling was once again underway. But now the team’s leader, Martin Siegert, has announced that they wouldn’t have enough fuel to make it all the way down to the lake and that the mission had been called off.

“Once back on UK soil,” says the BBC, “the team will have to develop a report on what went wrong, and only then can the thought of a return trip be considered.”

“It will take a season or two to get all of our equipment out of Antarctica and back to the UK, so at a minimum we’re looking at three to four, maybe five years I would have thought,” Prof Siegert said.

The Guardian:

Siegert said he was disappointed, given the decade of preparation and testing, but that the team was resolved to try again. “The science aims haven’t changed and we want to explore the glacial Lake Ellsworth, see if there’s life in that extreme environment. The scientific drivers of this work remain unchanged; we are as committed to wanting to understand the research at Lake Ellsworth as ever we were.”

More from Smithsonian.com:

No Life Found In Lakes Beneath Antarctic Glaciers—Yet
British Scientists Will Drill Through Three Kilometers of Ice Into an Ancient Antarctic Lake
Bacterial Life Abounds in Antarctic Lake, Cut Off From the World for 2,800 Years

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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