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Mystery Beneath The Antarctic Ice

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After 16 years of planning the countdown is on for one of the most ambitious scientific missions to Antarctica. In October a 12-man team of British scientists, engineers and support staff will make the 16,000 km journey from the UK to go deep into the heart of the frozen continent to collect samples of water and sediments from an ancient lake buried beneath three kilometers of ice. Their quest is to reveal vital secrets about the Earth’s past climate and discover life forms that may live in subglacial Lake Ellsworth on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Lake Ellsworth was mapped in detail by scientists using seismic survey techniques. They discovered a hidden lake 12km long, 3km wide and 150m deep, roughly the same size and depth as Windermere in the UK. 
 Photo: Neil Ross, University of Edinburgh 

Search for life

Finding life in a lake that could have been isolated from the rest of the biosphere for up to half a million years will reveal the potential origin of and constraints for life on Earth, and may provide clues to the evolution of life on other extraterrestrial environments. If no life is found in the lake this could be even more significant because it will define limits at which life can no longer exist on the planet.

Collecting a sediment core from a lake that is pitch black, has been sealed off for tens of thousands if not millions on years will answer big science questions. What is the possibility of life on other planets? What can we learn about the evolution of life on Earth?  How can we understand the ancient history of oceans and ice sheets?

Collecting a sample from the sediments locked beneath subglacial Lake Ellsworth is the perfect opportunity to find out about the fundamentals of life on Earth: 

  • Microbes can live within rocks and sediments
  • Microbes produce oxygen which is essential for creating an atmosphere
  • Lake Ellsworth may provide clues about the pre-conditions for life on Earth and other planets
  • The top layer of sediments may contain life forms
  • Is Earth unique or could there be life on other planets?
Secrets in the sediments

Analysis of the sediments from the sediment corer will reveal clues to microbial life and help scientists assess the present-day stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the likely consequences for future sea-level rise. Water and sediments samples will be analysed by consortium members in research institute and university laboratories throughout the UK.


Water sampling probe

The unique five-metre long water sampling probe was designed and built by engineers at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton. Made of the highest grade of titanium to ensure maximum sterility and strength, it will collect 24 water samples at different lake depths. It will also capture the top layer of sediments at the lake-floor / water interface.

Sediment corer

Scientists at British Antarctic Survey and Durham University, working in partnership with Austrian business UWITEC, have designed and built a sediment corer, which can extract a core up to three metres long. The unique percussion-driven piston corer is strong enough to penetrate even the most compacted glacial sediments to extract a core sample.

For the past three years a team of engineers from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) have pushed the boundaries of polar technology to design and build a state-of-the-art titanium water-sampling probe and a bespoke sediment corer capable of being lowered down a three kilometer borehole in the ice made by a custom-built hot-water drill. To add to the challenge every piece of technology has to be sterilised to space industry standards to ensure this unexplored lake remains pristine.
Credit:  British Antarctic Survey 
Getting Ready

After setting up the science camp and preparing all the equipment to start the mission, the team will have just 24 hours to sample the lake before the borehole re-freezes and re-seals the lake. Typical working conditions will be in temperatures a chilly minus 25°C and wind speeds averaging 25 knots.

The team of science and engineering experts has been brought together by the mission’s Principal Investigator Martin Siegert from the University of Bristol. He says:

“For the first time we are standing at the threshold of making new discoveries about a part of our planet that has never been explored in this way. Finding life in a lake that could have been isolated for up to half a million years is an exciting prospect, and the lake-bed sediments have the potential to paint a picture of the history of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in a way that we haven’t seen before. The team’s mission is to get into the deep field and bring back clean, valid samples of lake water and lake-bed sediments, which can be brought back to the UK for in depth analysis.”

Programme Manager Chris Hill from the British Antarctic Survey says: ”This time last year a small ‘advance party’ transported nearly 70 tonnes of equipment 16,000 km from the UK to the drilling site. Now, one year later, we will ship another 26 tonnes of equipment on to the continent so that we can complete stage two of this challenging field mission. We set foot on the ice again in October and hope to bring samples to the surface in December 2012 – an historic moment we have all been waiting for.”

Professor John Parnell from the School of Geosciences at the University of Aberdeen says: ”For years we have speculated that new forms of microbial life could have evolved in the unique habitats of Antarctica’s subglacial lakes. When we get the lake water samples back to the UK our analysis will focus on investigating the water for evidence of chemical compounds that microbes – tiny organisms – living in the lake might have produced.

“Finding evidence of such compounds would show us that if life can withstand even the deepest, darkest and most isolated conditions for more than a million years, then it has the ability to exist anywhere – and by that I mean not just on Earth. We will use advanced pieces of kit that allow us to analyse extremely small volumes of water – just a few millimetres – and is highly sensitive to the existence of any chemical compounds which may be present.”

By December 2012 the team will have prepared the field camp and will begin the 100 hours of non-stop, hot-water drilling required to create the borehole through to Lake Ellsworth. They will then have 24 hours to deploy the water and sediment-sampling equipment. During this process the team will use a bespoke 1.5 MW boiler to melt ice to provide 90,000 litres of water for the hot-water drill. The drill will pressurise the water to 2,000 psi and then pump this water at 210 litres per minute through a 3.5km bespoke hose to create a 360mm wide borehole.

This research is at the frontier of exploration and has been made possible through the unique partnership created by two Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Centres of Excellence, and eight UK universities. The Lake Ellsworth consortium programme is funded by NERC and draws together the UK’s top engineering, scientific and logistical capacities.

Contacts and sources:
Heather Martin
British Antarctic Survey

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    Total 10 comments
    • Medifix

      Why on earth are these crazy British scientists messing around with life in Antarctic? In the past two hundred years, the countries these stupid people set foot on has never been right. The present situation of finance, identifying disease that cannot be cured and the illness and claiming to be the guardians of democracy has only brought devastation to human kind.

      This work is not going to benefit mankind nor help us make this world a better place to live in. I think, these scientist must first find out what is buried in Windermere or chase Nessie and leave Antarctic alone.

      By creating a opening in the lake, they will not only send bacteria in but also set free unknown one that can threaten our existence. We have enough problem trying to find drugs to fight superbugs why increase their army?

    • Jack Heart

      Does before its News have a stupid comment of the year award. If it does I nominate Medifix

      There is evidence that long before Columbus set sail for the New World maps were circulating around the royal courts of the old one depicting its coastline. In 1513 Piri Reis an admiral in the Ottoman Turkish court copied a map from older sources. Some of the sources had been rumored to have been used by Columbus. The map is now called the Piri Reis map. It depicts the western coast of Africa, the eastern coast of South America, and the northern coast of Antarctica. The map hardly provides evidence for human interaction with beings from outer space as proposed by Erich von Däniken and the Dänikenites but it does show a reasonable facsimile of the South American coast, with a mountainous spine running through the interior. The mountains can only be read as the Andes. The map shows the Atlantic Ocean close to its actual proportions. Antarctica is shown 600 miles north of where it should be but it would not even be discovered for another 305 years. In 1531 an accurate depiction of the entire Antarctic coast was drawn by Oronce Fine in what is now called the Oronteus Finaeus Map. The Antarctic makes its next implausible appearance in 1614 with SIR WALTER RALEGH’S HISTORY OF THE WORLD. Only a fool or a paid whore of the Grosvenors disinformation apparatus National Geographic would argue that current man is not descended from a race far more advanced than we are now. If we can open that doorway we may just become the Gods that Fredrick Nietzsche predicted we would be: great golden beasts that no longer needed a God because he was not afraid to be his own God . Read:

    • Real American Hero

      I agree with Jack Heart……intelligent, and mature stories are rare here, and for once, I actually read through a clip without rolling my eyes.

      Good post.

      • Anonymous

        Hmmm… I was wondering.

        What if the human consciuosness is a very efficiient reality creating machine? What if reality is indeed a cumulate projection of the inner perception of those perceiving it?/ Why does light seemingly know when it is observed?/ I.e. if I can make the bigger part of the human spirit believe that an airplane hit steel, then it is just like it really happened. I mean a plane won’t materialise out of thin air, but the impact on consciousness is just the same as if it had happened.

        What if this whole site here is aimed to create reality? What if you are the main tool of putting a spell to the rest of the population?
        By only imagining a story you create a reality in your mind even if you discard it seconds later as BS.

        What if the whole truth movement is a big magic trick?

        However, I do not indulge in vague speculations of this sort anymore:), I only stick with reality and Sony and say it’s all about “make.believe”.

        -lil’ worm

    • Anonymous

      Sorry, the other Caucasians —the RUSSIANS…….HAVE “ALREADY DONE THAT” :!: :!: :!: :!: :!: :!:

      FUNNY, NO MENTION OF THIS RUSSIAN EVENT AT ALL IN THIS “intelligent, and mature story”!

      A statement by the chief of the Vostok Research Station, A. M. Yelagin, released by the director of the Russian Antarctic Expedition, Valery Lukin, said the drill made contact with the lake water at a depth of 12,366 feet. As planned, lake water under pressure rushed up the bore hole 100 to 130 feet pushing drilling fluid up and away from the pristine water, Mr. Yelagin said, and forming a frozen plug that will prevent contamination. Next Antarctic season, the scientists will return to take samples of the water.
      After drilling into Lake Vostok for over two decades, Russian scientists have confirmed that they reached the mysterious freshwater lake that was sealed beneath over two miles of Antarctic ice.

      Although reports on Lake Vostok came in Monday, the feat was not confirmed for two days. The Associated Press wrote Wednesday morning that according to a statement by Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, its team reached Lake Vostok on Sunday.

      Russian news source RT reports that the scientists were able to retrieve 40 liters of water from Lake Vostok which they are taking home in sterile containers to test.

      Lake Vostok, which hasn’t been touched by light in millions of years, has been a target of scientific exploration because of the unique lifeforms it may contain.

      AP writes, “The discovery has been avidly anticipated by scientists around the world, who hope that the lake, comparable in area to Lake Ontario, may contain microbial life and provide a clue in the search for life on other planets in similar conditions.”

      According to Wired, Lake Vostok likely contains 50 times the amount of oxygen found in a typical freshwater lake. The conditions in the lake “are thought to be similar” to Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus.
      Triumph! After two decades of drilling in most inhospitable place on Earth, Russian scientists return home with barrelful of water from ‘alien’ lake untouched for 20 million years

      Drilling successful as scientists break through into lake buried miles under Antarctic ice
      Scientists confirm breakthrough into buried lake
      Have raised sample of 40 litres of water
      Frozen sample will be removed in December in next Antarctic summer
      ‘Like exploring another planet except this one is ours’, scientist
      Lake has had no contact with man-made pollutants or Earthly life forms for millions of years

      • Jack Heart

        Just for you my brother
        Do you think our friends have any great love for the Russians? Food is food!

        • Anonymous

          Thanks, Jack.
          Great Read.
          Oh, yea, I know “Food is Food” :!:

          Know all about our Masters………………Reptilians :!: :!: :!: :!:
          For you, Jack… The Dulce Book

          They love “HUMAN kids” the best cause they are like “veal”…..milk feed, no adulterants (like tobacco or alcohol have been used by the “Human Hunk of Meat”)………………..YUUUUMMM :!:
          their favorite kind of “Human Meat” to “Harvest” :!:
          THEY ALSO HAVE psi mental abilities that are developed enough to “KILL HUMANS” WITH SHEER “THOUGHT” WHEN THEY ARE IN “CLOSE PROXIMITY:!: :!: :!: :!:

      • Praise Jebus

        you funny American you,I got to drill out my undies as I stuck oil… err mud in them. Any thoughts fellow commie? :cool:

    • Anonymous

      Just remind me a book I have read about 40 years ago.
      Rene Barjavel: The Ice People.
      If some are interested try to get this book & have a read! quite fascinating!

    • Henry


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