British scientists call off search for life in Antarctic lake
Four scientists are retrieved from research on sea ice in the Antarctic using a buoy, March 2003. (David Vaughan, British Antarctic Survey)
Published Friday, December 28, 2012 8:43AM EST
Last Updated Friday, December 28, 2012 1:25PM EST
British researchers looking for signs of life below the surface of an ice-locked Antarctic lake have had to call off their mission -- at least for the time being.
Scientists with the British Antarctic Survey had hoped that an investigation of Lake Ellsworth, believed to have frozen over thousands of years ago, would yield new information about the Earth’s climate.
At only 12 kilometres long and three kilometres wide, the lake is believed to be ideal for research due to its small and therefore manageable size.
But scientists ran into difficulties trying to drill into the sub-glacial lake on Christmas Day, when they were unable to link two boreholes sitting three kilometres below the ice’s surface.
The link between the two wells was a crucial step in the Lake Ellsworth drilling process. Connecting the two boreholes would allow drilling water to recirculate, which in turn would help scientists control the amount of pressure being placed on the lake once they punch through the ice.
In a statement, the British Antarctic Survey said researchers spent more than 20 hours trying to connect the two boreholes but lost much-needed time and resources during the endeavour.
Eventually, the team decided to cancel the drilling effort altogether. It’s unclear if or when the scientists will try to gather samples from Lake Ellsworth again.
“This is of course, hugely frustrating for us, but we have learned a lot this year,” Prof. Martin Siegert, the project’s principal investigator, said in a prepared statement.
Researchers plan to draft a full report on their drilling efforts when they return to the United Kingdom.
The team had hoped to find microbial life forms below the surface of Lake Ellsworth, a discovery that could reveal new insight about life in extreme conditions. Specifically, researchers were looking forward to understanding whether life could thrive beneath Antarctica’s vast ice sheets cloaked by darkness.
There were also hopes that samples from Lake Ellsworth would provide new information about the Earth’s climate, Siegert explained in a video message on the mission’s website.
“We need to understand about the history of the west Antarctic ice sheet,” Siegert said. “It has enough history in it, that if it melted, sea levels globally would go up about five to six metres.”
Understanding how old the ice sheet is would allow scientists to better understand current environmental conditions and climate change, he added.
Scientists know of more than 360 sub glacial lakes in Antarctica. Lake Ellsworth is of particular interest to researchers because it’s relatively small, one of a few lakes in west Antarctica, and sits in a strategic location next to Union Glacier.
Last February, a team of Russian scientists reached the surface of a larger freshwater lake in Antarctic. The researchers had been trying to reach the surface of Lake Vostok for more than two decades.