A dozen British scientists, engineers and researchers will drill down in December to a buried Antarctic lake 2 miles under an ancient ice sheet, gathering water and sediment samples in the hopes of discovering clues about the Earth's climate history and possibly new life forms.
"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 Principal Investigator Martin Siegert from the University of Bristol, in a statement. "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 12-man expedition will head to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet next month, where they will set up and hopefully execute an exploration of Lake Ellsworth, a nearly $13 million plan 16 years in the making. The group will bring with it a hot-water drill to penetrate the ice, water-sampling probe and sediment corer.
The unique equipment took engineers from the British Antarctic Survey and the National Oceanography Centre three years to create. Aside from the state-of-the-art titanium equipment, the gear must remain sterile to avoid contaminating a lake that has not had contact with the atmosphere in hundreds of thousands of years.
"For years we have speculated that new forms of microbial life could have evolved in the unique habitats of Antarctica's subglacial lakes," said microbiologist David Pearce in a statement from the British Arctic Survey, who is leading the search for creatures in the lake. "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 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."
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The scientists and engineers will use the hot-water drill, blasting piping-hot H20 at the ice to bore a hole 2 miles in the ice's surface, a process that will take 100 hours, to reach the lake. They will then have 24 hours to sample the water and scoop up sediments from the lake's bottom before the ice begins re-freezing. Along the way, the group will endure temperatures as low as 77 degrees below freezing and biting winds.
The prospects of finding life that has remained isolated from the rest of the earth for up to half a million years could show the bounds of what can sustain life on Earth, as well as what sort of creatures develop in isolated and rough conditions.
The Antarctic ice sheet has more than 145 lakes buried underneath it. Each has been isolated from the Earth's climate for a considerable period time, and scientists believe each can represent its own unique ecosystem. This includes the ability to live without light, high water pressure, a scarcity of nutrients, and completely isolation from the surface.
Finding no life at all Lake Ellsworth will be just as revelatory for the group.
"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," Pearce said.
The sediment samples will serve the dual-purpose of revealing any microbial life as well as painting a picture of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet's stability at a time when many scientists worry about global warming and rising water levels.
Any ancient seashells buried in the sediments may also reveal the last time the ice sheet broke up, according to Reuters. If that time period is determined, scientists can decipher what sort of climate conditions can cause the ice sheet to melt again, based on a timeline of the Earth's see-sawing climate history. The break-up of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would raise global sea levels 10 to 16 feet.
You can follow the team's progress on Twitter here: @Lake_Ellsworth.