A buried Antarctic lake hidden from the sunlit world for 1 million years is to be drilled by a group of British scientists. The boffins are hoping to extract the first-ever samples of Lake Ellsworth’s fresh water.
The lake is located beneath a staggering two miles of ice, and might be home to organisms completely new to science. Samples of its water could provide the first definitive explanation for the existence of the ice sheet above the buried Antarctic lake.
The mission to drill to the lake, which is 7 miles long, a mile wide and about 500 feet deep, will follow 16 years of careful planning. Scientists plan to use a specially built hot water drill to reach their target and extract samples.
According to Martin Siegert, lead investigator for the project and a glaciologist at the University of Bristol, drilling is set to begin in December. Before the mission starts, around a dozen researchers and engineers will assemble at a remote field camp in the middle of West Antarctica in late-November.
The project’s aim is simple: collect 24 small titanium canisters of lake water – each containing just 3.3 ounces (100 milliliters) – and sediment from the bottom of the lake. The environment will be kept pristine by the use of only sterile equipment.
Engineers estimate reaching the surface of Lake Ellsworth will take three straight days of drilling. With the surface accessed, scientists will have 24 hours to retrieve the samples, before the borehole freezes over again.
If microbial life exists in the buried Antarctic lake, it won’t take long for those working on the project to find out: the canisters of lake water won’t be opened until they are returned to clean rooms back in England for examination, but analysis of the water will begin as soon as it is sucked into the titanium canisters. Each canister contains a filter with a mesh so fine that it can catch any microbes that are drawn from the lake. As Siegert explained to Our Amazing Planet:
“When the probe comes to the surface, we won’t be able to analyze the water, but we will be able to analyze the filter immediately. We will look at it under a microscope within a few hours. So the question, ‘Is there life in the lake?,’ we will have an answer very quickly.”
Here’s a video describing how the project will work:
[Image source: British Antarctic Survey]