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Durham University

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Direct Measurement & Sampling of Subglacial Lake Ellsworth: Multidisciplinary Investigation of Life in Extreme Environments & West Antarctic Ice Sheet History

A research project of the Department of Geography.


This project has two fundamental scientific aims:

  1. to determine whether, and in what form, microbial life exists in Antarctic subglacial lakes, and
  2. to reveal the post-Pliocene history of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet

To meet these aims, we will undertake the direct measurement and sampling of water and sediment within Subglacial Lake Ellsworth in West Antarctica. For over a decade, scientists have regarded subglacial lakes to be extreme yet viable habitats for microbial life. Additionally, sedimentary palaeoenvironment records are thought to exist on the floors of subglacial lakes, which would provide critical insights into the glacial history of Antarctica. Of the >150 known subglacial lakes, Lake Ellsworth stands out as an ideal candidate for exploration. Through a NERC-AFI award, glaciologists have shown the lake, beneath 3 km of ice, to be 10 km long, 2.5 km wide and 160 m deep, confirming it as an ideal deep-water lake for exploration. The deployment of heavy equipment has been shown to be possible at this location, based on several deep-field reconnaissance studies. This project will build, test and deploy all the equipment necessary to complete the experiment in a clean and environmentally responsible manner. Samples will be analysed and split in field laboratories and at Rothera Station, and then distributed to laboratories across the UK. This project, which has been in a planning stage for four years, will be a benchmark exercise in the exploration of Antarctica, will make profound scientific discoveries regarding life in extreme environments and West Antarctic Ice Sheet history, and will be of genuine interest to the public and media.

This multi-million project is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). For more information, visit the Lake Ellsworth Consortium website.


From the Department of Geography