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Exploration of buried Antarctic lake given green light

Professor Martyn Tranter doing fieldwork in Antarctica.

Professor Martyn Tranter doing fieldwork in Antarctica.

Press release issued: 2 March 2009

An international team of scientists, led by the UK, has been given the go-ahead to explore one of the planet’s last great frontiers - an ancient lake hidden deep beneath Antarctica’s ice sheet. Buried under three kilometers of ice, the lake – the size of Lake Windermere (UK) – may have been isolated for hundreds of thousands of years and could contain unique forms of life.

An international team of scientists, led by the UK, has been given the go-ahead to explore one of the planet’s last great frontiers – an ancient lake hidden deep beneath Antarctica’s ice sheet.

Buried under three kilometres of ice, Lake Ellsworth – the size of Lake Windermere (UK) – may have been isolated for hundreds of thousands of years and could contain unique forms of life. The team hopes the exploration will yield vital clues about life on Earth, climate change and future sea-level rise.

Following the success in early 2008 of an International Polar Year project to map the extent and depth of subglacial Lake Ellsworth, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) has awarded £6 million to a consortium of multidisciplinary research centres, including the University of Bristol.

During the next five years the researchers will acquire and develop the technologies needed for this ambitious project. During the 2012-2013 Antarctic winter season the research team will go ‘deep field’ into West Antarctica to sample water from the lake in the search for tiny life forms never before seen; and to extract sediment from the lake bed to find clues as to how the climate has changed over many millennia.

Professor Martyn Tranter from the University of Bristol will be analysing some of the water from the lake, looking for signs of life. He said: “We are all very excited at the prospect of seeing what’s going on down there. Any microbes feeding on material at the bottom of the lake will be giving off a particular chemical signature that we hope to pick up in the water. If we find anything living beneath the ice it will not only be very exciting in itself, but could have implications for life in similar icy environments, such as on other planets.”

Consortium leader Professor Martin Siegert from the University of Edinburgh said: “This is a benchmark in polar exploration – our team will be the first to explore this ancient lake. It is a dark, cold place that has been sealed from the outside world and it’s likely to contain unique forms of life. We hope to discover more about how life can exist in extreme environments and how Antarctica has changed in the past – which might help us understand more about other places on Earth.”

In such an extreme environment, the mere presence of life in itself would be a major scientific discovery, but there are very strong reasons to expect that such micro-organisms would possess special or unique adaptations to this unusual and potentially hostile habitat.

David Blake, who is Head of Technology and Engineering at the British Antarctic Survey and is involved in the project, said: “This project is a great scientific challenge and the technology required to drill 3 km through the ice without contaminating the lake is equally ambitious. Over the next few years we will build a hot water drill and probe, and make preparations to transport a sophisticated operation deep into the interior of West Antarctica. We really are at the frontiers of scientific exploration.”

The exploration of subglacial lakes is part of an international effort to understand key global issues such as life in extreme environments and climate change.

Further information

Lake Ellsworth lies beneath 3 km of ice. Results from 2008/2009 experiments revealed that the lake is 150 m deep. Details of the five-year development of the Lake Ellsworth Exploration Programme can be found on the University of Edinburgh's website.

Please contact Cherry Lewis for further information.

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