Drilling into the unknown -- the first exploration of a sub-glacial Antarctic lake is a major step closer

Jun 04, 2010
Field camp at Lake Ellsworth

(PhysOrg.com) -- Scientists have located the ideal drill site for the first ever exploration of an Antarctic sub-glacial lake, a development that it likely to facilitate a revolution in climate-change research and which may lead to the discovery of life-forms cut off from the main line of evolution for millions of years.

In a paper published in this week, scientists from Northumbria University, the University of Edinburgh and the have revealed the optimal drill site for exploring Lake Ellsworth, a sub-glacial lake comparable in size to Lake Windermere which is covered by three kilometres of ice.

No one has yet drilled into an Antarctic sub-glacial lake. But microbiologists believe that such lakes could harbour uniquely adapted life-forms cut-off from other lines of evolution. Paleoclimatologists also suggest that sediments on the lake floors could contain records of ice sheets and climate history that would revolutionise research into global warming.

In order to access the lake water and the undisturbed containing the climate record, it is essential to drill in the right place.

The optimal drilling site has to avoid possible areas of in-coming water that would disturb the sediment, as well as areas of so-called basal freezing — where lake water freezes to the underside of the ice. It also has to avoid any concentrations of trapped gases which could rush up the bore hole to cause a potentially dangerous blowout at the surface.

The Scientific Committee on Arctic Research identified Lake Ellsworth as an excellent candidate for the first drill site.

Dr John Woodward, from Northumbria University’s School of Applied Sciences, commented: “The location provides a column for sampling and reduces the risk from possible basal-freezing mechanisms. It optimises the chances of recovering an undisturbed, continuous sedimentary sequence from the lake floor, and minimises the potential for trapped gases to gain entry to the borehole.”

Dr Andy Smith of the British Antarctic Survey added: “This is an eagerly-anticipated result -- the final piece of the jigsaw that we need to plan the exploration of Lake Ellsworth. That exploration can now go ahead at full speed.”

To locate the optimal drill site, the team had to conduct the first detailed characterisation of the physiography of a sub-glacial lake. Between 2007-2009, the lake was subject to a ground-based geophysics campaign involving an ice-penetrating radar to investigate ice thickness, seismic surveys to calculate lake water depths and flow measurements to calculate how the ice sheet flows over the underlying lake.

The climactic stage in the project will take place in the 2012-13 Antarctic summer when the Lake Ellsworth Consortium will use the data in this paper to access a sub-glacial lake for the first time.

Professor Martin Siegert, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, said: “Pinpointing the perfect spot from which to access the sub-glacial lake helps us to find out all we can about this interesting and pristine environment, without the risk of contaminating it.”

Explore further: Understanding oceanic earthquake precursors

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Lake Vostok life to be studied

Jan 15, 2007

U.S. researchers say they will analyze microorganisms from a vast Antarctic lake to determine how life adapts to extremely harsh environments.

Two new lakes found beneath Antarctic ice sheet

Jan 26, 2006

The Earth Institute at Columbia University--Lying beneath more than two miles of Antarctic ice, Lake Vostok may be the best-known and largest subglacial lake in the world, but it is not alone down there. Scientists ...

Recommended for you

Understanding oceanic earthquake precursors

8 minutes ago

Published on 14 September in Nature Geoscience, a study conducted by researchers from several institutes, including IFREMER (French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea), CNRS and IFSTTAR, offers the first theore ...

NASA image: Fires in the Egypt River Delta

15 hours ago

This NASA satellite image is of the Egyptian River Delta. Actively burning areas, detected by MODIS's thermal bands, are outlined in red. Each hot spot, which appears as a red mark, is an area where the thermal ...

Terra Satellite sees Tropical Storm Ana over Hawaii

15 hours ago

Tropical Storm Ana made a slow track west of the Hawaiian islands over the last couple of days, and by Oct. 20 was moving westward away from the main Hawaiian islands and heading toward the northwest Hawaiian ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

PinkElephant
not rated yet Jun 04, 2010
helps us to find out all we can about this interesting and pristine environment, without the risk of contaminating it.
Indeed...

I hope they've gotten their equipment sterilization procedures down pat. There aren't any second chances with something like this...