11 October, 2011

British Antarctic Survey engineering team heads to Antarctica to explore hidden lake

Next week a British engineering team from British Antarctic Survey (BAS) heads off to Antarctica for the first stage of an ambitious scientific mission to collect water and sediment samples from a lake buried beneath three kilometres of solid ice. This extraordinary research project, at the frontier of exploration, will yield new knowledge about the evolution of life on Earth and other planets, and will provide vital clues about the Earth’s past climate.

Twin Otter flying past field camp in Twin Otter flying past field camp, Heritage Range, Ellsworth Mountains. Liberty marble, Patriot and Independence hills in the background.

Transporting nearly 70 tonnes of equipment the ‘advance party’ of four engineers from BAS will make a journey almost 16,000km from the UK to subglacial Lake Ellsworth on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) – one of the most remote and hostile environments on Earth with −25°C temperatures.

Subglacial Lake Ellsworth Programme Manager Chris Hill is part of the team. He says,

“Our task is to prepare the way for the ‘deep-field’ research mission that will take place next year. In October 2012 we will return to the site with a team of 10 scientists and engineers to make a three kilometre bore hole through the ice using state-of-the-art hot water drilling technology. We will then lower a titanium probe to measure and sample the water followed by a corer to extract sediment from the lake.”

Lake Ellsworth is likely to be the first of Antarctica’s 387 known subglacial lakes to be measured and sampled directly through the design and manufacture of space-industry standard ‘clean technology’.

For years scientists have speculated that new and unique forms of microbial life could have evolved in this cold, pitch black and isolated environment. Sediments on the lake bed are likely to reveal vital clues about the history of life in the lake and the ancient history of the WAIS, including past collapse.

Dr David Pearce, Science Coordinator at BAS, is part of the team leading the ‘search for life’ in the lake water and will go to Lake Ellsworth for stage two of the mission. He says:

“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, and may provide clues to the evolution of life on other extraterrestrial environments. 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.”

BAS Director, Professor Nicholas Owens, says,

“The exploration of subglacial Lake Ellsworth is a frontier science project with engineering and technology at the forefront. It is hugely exciting for the scientists and engineers working within the consortium, which sees two of the Natural Environment Research Council’s centres of excellence – the British Antarctic Survey and the National Oceanography Centre — working in partnership with eight leading UK universities.

“Every piece of equipment is a bespoke design and has been built in partnership with several UK businesses therefore contributing to the UK economy. Also this innovative engineering and technology that is being developed to penetrate three kilometers through the ice without contaminating the pristine lake will lead the way for future explorations.”

British camp deep field, Lake Ellsworth

The Lake Ellsworth Programme Principal Investigator, Professor Martin Siegert from the University of Edinburgh, says:

“For almost 15 years we’ve been planning to explore this hidden world. It’s only now that we have the expertise and technology to drill through Antarctica’s thickest ice and collect samples without contaminating this untouched and pristine environment.”

Scientists at British Antarctic Survey and Durham University, working in partnership with Austrian business UWITEC, have designed and built a sediment corer, which can extract a core up to three metres long. The unique percussion-driven piston corer is strong enough to penetrate even the most compacted glacial sediments to extract a core sample.

The unique five metre long water sampling probe was designed and built by engineers at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton. Made of the highest grade of titanium to ensure maximum sterility and strength, it will collect 24 water samples at different lake depths. It will also capture the top layer of sediments at the lake-floor / water interface.

Next year the team of scientists and engineers will live in tents, spending around three months working at one of the coldest and windiest places on Earth.

The Lake Ellsworth consortium programme is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council.


Issued by British Antarctic Survey Press Office:

Athena Dinar, Tel: +44 (0)1223 221414; Mobile: 07736 921693; Email: amdi@bas.ac.uk

Linda Capper, Tel: +44 (0)1223 221448; Mobile: 07714 233744; Email: lmca@bas.ac.uk

Follow the Subglacial Lake Ellsworth Programme

Broadcast quality images of the Lake Ellsworth drilling site: ftp://ftp.nerc-bas.ac.uk/pub/photo/Lake_Ellsworth/

The Team

Advance Party, British Antarctic Survey:

  • Chris Hill, Lake Ellsworth Programme Manager
  • Andy Tait, Lead Engineer (hot-water drill)
  • Andy Webb, Drilling Engineer
  • Scott Iremonger, Plant Engineer

British Antarctic Survey (Search for Life)

Dr David Pearce, Tel: +44 (0)1223 221561; Mobile: 07931 531405; Email: dpearce@bas.ac.uk

University of Edinburgh (Principal Investigator)

Prof Martin Siegert, Tel: +44 (0)131 650 7542; Mobile: 07780 703008; Email: M.J.Siegert@ed.ac.uk

Press Office: Catriona Kelly, Tel: +44 (0)131 651 4401; Mobile: 07791 355940; Email: Catriona.Kelly@ed.ac.uk

Durham University (Secrets in the Sediments)

Prof Mike Bentley, Tel: +44 (0)191 334 1859; Mobile: 07825 823954; Email: M.J.Bentley@durham.ac.uk

Press Office: Carl Stiansen, Tel: +44 (0)191 334 6077 Mobile: 07508 003770; Email: C.R.Stiansen@durham.ac.uk

National Oceanography Centre (Water Sampling Probe)

Dr Matt Mowlem, Tel: +44 (0)2380 596379; Mobile: 07835 849992; Email: mcm@noc.soton.ac.uk

Press Office: Mike Douglas, Tel: +44 (0)2380 596001; Mobile: 07881 514844; Email: mike.douglas@noc.ac.uk

Notes for editors:

  • 387 subglacial lakes have so far been discovered beneath Antarctica’s vast ice sheet. The most well-known of these is Lake Vostok in East Antarctica. A Russian team hopes to penetrate and collect samples from this lake soon
  • The space-industry standard ‘clean technology’ required to penetrate and sample subglacial Lake Ellsworth is the first of its kind to be developed
  • The hot-water drill to create the borehole has been designed and built by engineers at British Antarctic Survey. Only two companies in the world could deliver a 3.4km-long continuous hose to the required specification — both based in the UK
  • Analysis of the sediments from the sediment corer will reveal clues to microbial life and help scientists assess the present-day stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the likely consequences for future sea-level rise. Water and sediments samples will be analysed by consortium members in research institute and university laboratories throughout the UK

Watch the “Through the ice” Animation

Sediment Corer Animation

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