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Durham University

Department of Geography

News Archive

Engineering team heads to Antarctica to explore hidden lake

(25 October 2011)

A British engineering team is heading off to Antarctica for the first stage of an ambitious scientific mission to collect water and sediment samples from a lake buried beneath three kilometres of solid ice. Durham University expert Professor Mike Bentley and his team will be analysing the samples.

This extraordinary research project, at the frontiers of exploration, will yield new knowledge about the evolution of life on Earth and other planets, and will provide vital clues about the Earth's past climate.

Transporting more than 70 tonnes of equipment the ‘advance party' will make the 16,000 mile journey from the UK to subglacial Lake Ellsworth on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS). It is one of the most remote and hostile environments on Earth. Their task is to prepare the way for the ‘deep-field' research mission that will take place one year later.

In October 2012, a team of 10 scientists and engineers will use state-of-the-art hot-water drilling technology to make a three kilometre bore hole through the ice. They will then lower a titanium water-sampling probe followed by a corer to extract three metres of sediment from the lake. Lake Ellsworth is likely to be the first of Antarctica's 387 known subglacial lakes to be measured and sampled directly through the design and manufacture of space-industry standard ‘clean technology'.

For years scientists have speculated that new and unique forms of microbial life could have evolved in this cold, pitch black and isolated environment. Sediments on the lake bed are likely to reveal vital clues about the history of life in the lake and the ancient history of the WAIS, including past collapse.

Durham University will be part of the team leading the analysis of sediments retrieved from the floor of the lake. Professor Mike Bentley, a glacial geologist in the Department of Geography at Durham University, said: "One of the most likely places for life to exist is at the lake bed. Most of the lake water will probably be low in nutrients but at the sediment surface there will be abundant nutrients available to life."

The sediments are a key motivation for lake exploration because they also contain a record of past ice sheet change. Professor Bentley said: "The sediments will provide a window on the ancient history of the lake because they record the conditions and changes that have occurred through time. We may see a history of life in the lake - as characteristic organic molecules preserved in the mud - and changes to the overlying ice sheet over thousands of years will also be recorded in changes to the type of sediment we find."

The Lake Ellsworth Programme Principal Investigator, Professor Martin Siegert from the University of Edinburgh, said:

"For almost 15 years we've been planning to explore this hidden world. It's only now that we have the expertise and technology to drill through Antarctica's thickest ice and collect samples without contaminating this untouched and pristine environment.

"We are tremendously excited - this is a frontier science project with engineering and technology at the forefront. Scientists and engineers from two of the Natural Environment Research Council's (NERC) centres of excellence, working in partnership with scientists from eight UK universities, make up the consortium that will search for life in this extreme environment and discover the secrets locked in the sediments. Every piece of equipment is a bespoke design and they have been built in partnership with several UK businesses."

Dr David Pearce, Science Coordinator at British Antarctic Survey, is part of the team leading the ‘search for life' in the lake water. He said:

"Finding life in a lake that could have been isolated from the rest of the biosphere for up to half a million years will tell us so much about the potential origin of and constraints for life on Earth, and may provide clues to the evolution of life on other extraterrestrial environments. If we find nothing this will be even more significant because it will define limits at which life can no longer exist on the planet."

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.

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.

Next year, the team of scientists and engineers will live in tents, spending around three months working at one of the coldest and windiest places on Earth.

The Lake Ellsworth consortium programme is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council.