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'Frontiers' - BBC Radio 4 - 09-Nov-2011

Published 15 Nov 2011

The last untouched realm of life on the Earth is about to be opened up for scientific exploration. These are the subglacial lakes of Antarctica - vast, dark bodies of prehistoric water, which have been sealed under kilometres of ice for hundreds of thousands or millions of years. Andrew Luck-Baker looks at the science and the ambitious plans behind their exploration.

Russian scientists are poised to penetrate the largest, Lake Vostok, with a conventional drill next January. They have been drilling their way towards the lake top for several years now, located at their research station where the lowest temperature ever measured on the planet was recorded, -90 degrees C.

But the British may beat them when it comes to profound discoveries about subglacial lakes. In December this year, a UK team will set up its own extraordinary ice 'drilling' operation, three kilometres above Lake Ellsworth on the other side of the frozen continent. Lake Ellsworth is roughly the size of Lake Windermere. The UK's audacious plan entails melting a narrow 3.5 kilometre long hole into that lake with a jet of near- boiling water. The scientists will deploy a probe into the depths of the hidden lake to take readings and samples from top to bottom. This stage of NASA-style mission is scheduled for December 2012. It involves scientists and engineers from the British Antarctic Survey and a number of British universities.

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