Sampling of lake will provide climate, evolutionary clues
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — For many years, scientists have wondered if life in some form has persisted at the very margins of the Earth’s enviroment, perhaps tucked two miles deep beneath the surface of Antarctica’s ice sheets.
After recent discoveries of organisms that can survive in the super-heated environment around deep-sea volcanic vents, or in near-boiling geothermal pools in Yellowstone, it might not be such a stretch to imagine that some equally astounding form of life may exist in frozen parts of the world, but we just don’t know, at least not yet.
Some of the answers may be forthcoming from the results of an expedition by the British Antarctic Survey to drill into the subglacial Lake Ellsworth, on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Learn more at the Lake Ellsworth project website, visit the researchers on the Lake Ellsworth Facebook page and follow the expedition on Twitter.
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. Researchers say their findings may even offer clues as to whether life is possible on other planets.
Lake Ellsworth is one of 387 subglacial lakes that havebeen discovered beneath Antarctica’s vast ice sheet. The most well-known of these is Lake Vostok in East Antarctica. A Russian team hopes to penetrate and collect samples from Vostok.
“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,” said the University of Bristol’s Martin Siegert, the lead investigator.
“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,” Siegert said.
The researchers are announcing the countdown for their mission at a press conference in Aberdeen today (Sept. 7). The journey begins in October, when a 12-man team of scientists, engineers and support staff will trek to the heart of the frozen continent.
The expedition comes after three years of preparatory work, including design and construction of a state-of-the-art titanium water-sampling probe and other specialized equipment needed to drill in the harsh Antarctic environment. Every piece of gear must be sterilized to space industry standards to ensure the unexplored lake remains pristine.
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 degrees Celsius and wind speeds averaging 25 knots.
“This time last year a small ‘advance party’ transported nearly 70 tonnes of equipment 16,000 km from the UK to the drilling site,” said program manager Chris Hill, of the BAS. “Now … we will ship another 26 tons 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,” Hill said.
“For years we have speculated that new forms of microbial life could have evolved in the unique habitats of Antarctica’s subglacial lakes,” said Professor John Parnell from the School of Geosciences at the University of Aberdeen. “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,” Parnell said.
“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.”
The plan is to have field camp prepared by December, when the team will start 100 nonstop hours of hot-water drilling required to create the borehole through to Lake Ellsworth. Once they reach the lake, they’ll only have 24 hours to deploy the sampling equipment before the ice freezes again.
The cutting-edge research is enabled through a unique partnership created by two Natural Environment Research Council 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.