Drilling for life in an Antarctic abyss
The secrets hidden in one of the most remote environments on the planet are about to be revealed. Scientists working in Antarctica are set to drill down through more than three kilometres of ice to reach a fresh water lake that has not seen the light of day for up to half a million years.
The €10 million-mission has taken 16 years of planning, the work of at least 100 engineers and scientists, and required the transport of almost 100 tonnes of equipment across 16,000 kilometres on to the West Antarctic ice sheet.
The goal is to determine whether life of some kind can survive in Lake Ellsworth, one of about 360 lakes that lie under the thick Antarctic ice sheet. If life can struggle along there, in frigid conditions, completely isolated from the sun and at pressures as intense as at the bottom of the ocean, it will likely be found in other extreme environments on other planets and moons across our solar system.
Bore-hole drilling is set to start in the next few days and water and sediment samples from Lake Ellsworth could reach the surface in about 10 days. However, nothing is certain when working in Antarctica’s harsh environment, says the mission’s principal investigator, Prof Martin Siegert of the University of Bristol.
He has championed the project since the late 1990s, and now that five days of continuous bore-hole drilling is about to start there is no shortage of nervous tension. “It will be a wonderful moment to get the samples back,” Siegert says. “I just want everything to work.”
It has taken years to reach this point, with support from the British Antarctic Survey, the UK National Oceanography Centre in Southampton and eight UK universities. And although there has been a cast of 100 involved, just 12 people including Siegert have gathered on the ice above Lake Ellsworth to accomplish the task.
One might wonder why invest all the money and effort to bring back samples of water and muck off the lakebed, but Prof John Parnell of the University of Aberdeen is in no doubt about the importance of the mission.
Success will tell us much about just how rugged life forms can be. “Ultimately we need to know the limits of life, not just on Earth but in a wider context,” he says. Life colonises every nook and cranny we can find on Earth so they are expecting this to also be true of Ellsworth. “If they have not been able to colonise this environment it will be very surprising.”