Geologists will drill down more than 3,000 meters of ice to reach a sub-glacial lake in western Antarctic that is probably a million years old, in search of new species and clues about climate change.
A UK-based research team will use a specially made 1.8-mile-long hose fitted with a probe and the latest communication equipment to explore the ancient lake, which has been isolated for hundreds of thousands of years.
For the past 15 years we were planning to discover this hidden world. But now because of technology we have the expertise and equipments to drill Antarctica's thickest ice and collect samples without contaminating the water, said Martin Siegert, a professor at the University of Edinburgh and the team's principal investigator.
The exploration is being undertaken by the British Antarctic Survey mission, Durham University and Austrian company UWITEC. The drilling operation will start in November 2012.
The researchers said they could bump into evidence of viruses, bacteria, single-celled microorganisms called archea and complex cell organisms called eukaryotes. These life forms could increase our understanding of how life on Earth began and evolved and help define its limits, they said.
But the conditions under which they will be working are arduous. For three months they will be living in tents in one of the coldest and windiest places on the planet, in a region called Lake Ellsworth on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, where temperatures can fall to -25 degrees centigrade (-13 degrees Fahrenheit).
This is an unknown environment — we don’t know, for example, whether there will be dissolved gases in the water. So the water at its pressure of 300 atmospheres will be sampled. But when we pull the probe up and the flasks hit the cold air in the borehole, the water will try to freeze; the pressure then increases to around 2,700 atmospheres, and that’s greater than anything experienced in ocean engineering,” said Matt Mowlem from the National Oceanography Center in Southampton, according to BBC.
David Pearce, science coordinator at the British Antarctic Survey and part of the team leading the search for life in the lake water, said the project is aimed at determining what forms of life that might exist in the cold, pitch-black environment of the buried waters.
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 ... If we find no life, then the finding will be even more significant because it will define limits at which life can no longer exist on the planet, said Pearce.
The researchers will use hot water to melt ice sheet, a methodology used previously in similar operations. But it will be the first time this technology will be used for an exploration of this depth.
According to them, the hot-water drill will create a 36 centimeter-wide borehole through which they hope to collect specimen from down under. The ancient lake supposedly remains liquid owing to the geothermal heat generated by Earth's innards.