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Antarctic lake study a step closer

A University-led project to explore a subglacial lake in Antarctica has concluded its first phase.

A team of four British Antarctic Survey engineers has returned to the UK after travelling to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to put in place equipment and supplies for the second phase of the project, to be carried out later this year.

Researchers taking part in the Natural Environment Research Council-funded project will use a high-pressure hot water drill to bore through 3km of ice above Lake Ellsworth, before lowering a titanium probe.

The corer will sample water and sediment from the lake, which has lain undisturbed for many thousands of years.

Challenging terrain

The samples we hope to capture from Lake Ellsworth will be hugely valuable.

Professor Martin SiegertSchool of GeoSciences

The Subglacial Lake Ellsworth advance party endured temperatures of minus 35C to tow nearly 70 tonnes of equipment across Antarctic ice, over deep snow and steep mountain passes.

In December a science and engineering team will make the 16,000 km journey from the UK to collect water and sediments from the lake.

Lake Ellsworth will be the first Antarctic subglacial lake to be measured and sampled directly through the design and manufacture of space-industry standard technology.

Ambitious quest

Scientists have been planning for more than 15 years to access the lake, which is one of more than 400 known subglacial lakes in Antarctica.

Researchers hope their quest will yield new knowledge about the evolution of life on Earth and other planets.

Lake bed sediments could also provide vital clues about the Earth’s past climate.

A number of partners are involved in the consortium, including the National Oceanography Centre and Durham University.

The completion of this stage of the mission is a welcome one. We are now one step closer to finding out if new and unique forms of microbial life could have evolved in this environment. Sediment samples could give us an important insight in to the ancient history of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, including past collapse, which would have implications for future sea level rise.

Professor Martin SiegertSchool of GeoSciences