British Scientists Will Drill Through Three Kilometers of Ice Into an Ancient Antarctic Lake

More than a decade of planning will come together this week for a five-day push through three kilometers of ice

The Lake Ellsworth drilling camp
The Lake Ellsworth drilling camp British Antarctic Survey

For more than a decade a British team, led by glaciologist Martin Siegert, has been preparing for a mission to one of the few places on Earth unseen by human eyes. For millions of years, Lake Ellsworth has been trapped beneath the crushing glacier ice of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Starting this week, researchers and engineers who are right now out on the ice will fire up their drill for a five-day-long push through more than 3 kilometers (nearly 2 miles) of ice.

The team, which you can follow on its website, on Facebook, or on Twitter, will use a hot-water drill to cut through the ice in the span of five days. For all the effort and planning, the team will leave their hole open for just 24 hours—both because water from the lake will seep up and refreeze, but also because they want to minimize any potential contamination of the pristine waters. The threat of contamination is real, too: the scientists are hoping to find lifeforms, largely microorganisms, that have been disconnected from the rest of the world for millennia.

That anything should be alive in such a cold, hostile territory may seem unlikely, but Martin Siegert—the project’s lead scientist—said the environment is more amenable than one might think. In an interview (with this blogger, but for the American Geophysical Union), Siegert said:

“In these lakes, there is no sunlight, and the lakes are under a lot of pressure. However, temperatures are only around –1°C or –2°C, so it’s not really that cold. But how would these microbes survive? They need chemicals to power their biological processes because they don’t get sunlight, and there are two places from which chemicals might be delivered into the lake. From the overriding ice that melts into the lake, there will be dissolved gases and dust. These were trapped in the ice sheet surface and over time have found their way down to the bed of the ice sheet. There will also be minerals on the floor of the subglacial lake. We think microbes might find it easier to exist and cluster between the ice bed and the lake surface and between the lake bed and the sediment surface, rather than within the whole length of the water column.”

As such, the team will be collecting water samples and lake bottom sediment samples in a bid to find these relic microbes. Along with the search for unique lifeforms, the research may also be useful for trying to understand the climatic changes that have affected Antarctica over the past few million years—an understanding that would be useful still as we seek to make sense of modern global warming. According to the BBC’s David Shukman, preliminary results from the mission “should be known in about a week’s time.”

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