Seeking secrets of a buried Antarctic lake
Cut off from sunlight for millennia, its waters may contain undiscovered organisms.
After 16 years of meticulous planning, a team of British scientists is finally ready to journey to a remote, windswept plain in Antarctica, where they will drill deep into the ice to take the first-ever samples from a lake cut off from the sunlit world for up to 1 million years.
Their target, Lake Ellsworth, may house tiny organisms utterly new to science, and may proffer the first solid clues regarding the age of the massive ice sheet that covers it.
The lake is 7 miles long, a mile wide and about 500 feet deep (12 kilometers by 3 km by 150 meters). It lies in the middle of West Antarctica, hidden beneath nearly 2 miles (3 km) of ice, and scientists plan to use a specially built hot water drill to reach its fresh waters.
A team of a dozen researchers and engineers will assemble at a remote field camp in late November, and drilling is slated to begin in December, said Martin Siegert, the lead investigator for the project and a glaciologist at the University of Bristol. [Stunning Photos of Antarctica's Lake Ellsworth]
The massive undertaking is aimed at one simple goal: to fetch 24 small titanium canisters of lake water — just 3.3 ounces (100 milliliters) each — along with sediment from the lake bottom, all scooped up with sterile equipment that will keep both samples and the lake environment utterly pristine.
It will take three straight days of drilling to reach the surface of Lake Ellsworth. Once the lake is breached, Siegert said, the scientists will have about 24 hours to retrieve all the samples before the borehole freezes over again.
However, if the work isn't completed in 24 hours, the team has enough fuel to melt through the ice a second time, which would buy them more time. "Some snags will happen, so you have to build in redundancy," Siegert told OurAmazingPlanet.
The scientists will be able to watch the action live as it unfolds beneath them. The team has affixed tiny, high-definition video cameras to the probe and the sediment corer, along with bright lights to illuminate the darkness. One camera looks up toward the surface, and one looks down.
"We're really looking forward to getting images back," Siegert said.
Is it alive?
Although the canisters of lake water won't be opened until they are returned to clean rooms back in England for analysis, the world won't have to wait to learn what life forms — if any — lurk in Lake Ellsworth.