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Is there life in lakes under glaciers?

Press release issued: 13 October 2003

An international meeting to finalise a programme for the exploration of lakes buried beneath kilometres of glacial ice in the Antarctic is being held at Bristol University this week.

An international meeting to finalise a programme for the exploration of lakes buried beneath kilometres of glacial ice in the Antarctic, such as Lake Vostok, is being held in the School of Geographical Sciences at Bristol University on 14-15 October.

Professor Martin Siegert of Bristol University who is hosting the meeting said: 'This meeting will mark a turning point in the exploration of these sub-glacial lakes.  It is presently done by a number of researchers around the world working on their own, but for the first time all the specialists will be brought together to discuss and plan the way forward.'

Interest in the exploration of sub-glacial lakes has been generated by the possibility that life may exist in these lakes, which have been isolated from the rest of the world for hundreds of thousands of years. More certain is the fact that important records on past climates will be preserved in the sediments at the bottom of the lakes.

In exploring these lakes it is crucial that their pristine states are not contaminated, but the difficulty of the challenge to enter a lake and retrieve sediment from the bottom through four kilometres of ice without contaminating anything, is a no small task.

Importantly, the meeting in Bristol will plan a timescale over which the necessary technological developments required for sub-glacial lake access will be made. The lifetime of the programme will be 5 years in the first instance, beginning 2004. It is hoped that sub-glacial lake exploration can be started in that time frame.

Given the technological challenges it has been suggested that a small lake should first be used as a test site. A proposal to undertake geophysical exploration of a small sub-glacial lake near the Ellsworth Mountains in West Antarctica has been put forward. Geophysical data will be used to model ice flow, heat transfer and water circulation within the lake. The outcome of the project will be the first full characterisation of a sub-glacial lake, which could make it the most appropriate for future exploratory research.  The specialists in Bristol will be discussing the details of this proposal.

Another important aspect of the meeting will be to find a mechanism for international collaboration, thereby encouraging participation in the project through sharing costs and solving the technical problems involved.

Members of the committee attending the meeting in Bristol are:

John Priscu (chair) - Montana State University, USA
Chuck Kennicutt (secretary) - Texas A&M University, USA
Ignazio Tabacco - University of Milan, Italy
Valary Lukin - Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, Russia
Sergey Bulat - Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute, Russia
Ross Powell - University of Illinois, USA
Jean Robert Petit - Grenoble, France
Cynan Ellis-Evans - British Antarctic Survey, UK
Martin Siegert (meeting organiser) - University of Bristol, UK