15 January, 2008

A four-man science team led by British Antarctic Survey’s (BAS) Dr Andy Smith has begun exploring an ancient lake hidden deep beneath Antarctica’s ice sheet. The lake – the size of Lake Windermere (UK) – could yield vital clues to life on Earth, climate change and future sea-level rise.

Glaciologist Dr Smith and his colleagues from the Universities of Edinburgh and Northumbria are camped out at one of the most remote places on Earth conducting a series of experiments on the ice.  He says,

“This is the first phase of what we think is an incredibly exciting project. We know the lake is 3.2km beneath the ice; long and thin and around 18 km2 in area.  First results from our experiments have shown the lake is 105m deep. This means Lake Ellsworth is a deep-water body and confirms the lake as an ideal site for future exploration missions to detect microbial life and recover climate records.

“If the survey work goes well, the next phase will be to build a probe, drill down into the lake and explore and sample the lake water. The UK could do this as soon as 2012/13.”

This ambitious exploration of ‘subglacial’ Lake Ellsworth, West Antarctica, involves scientists from 14 UK universities and research institutes, as well as colleagues from Chile, USA, Sweden, Belgium, Germany and New Zealand.  The International Polar Year* project Principal Investigator is Professor Martin Siegert from the University of Edinburgh.  He says,

“We are particularly interested in Lake Ellsworth because it’s likely to have been isolated from the surface for hundreds of thousands of years.  Radar measurements made previously from aircraft surveys suggest that the lake is connected to others that could drain ice from the West Antarctic Ice sheet to the ocean and contribute to sea-level rise.”

Professor Siegert is already planning the lake’s future exploration. He continues,

“Around 150 lakes have been discovered beneath Antarctica’s vast ice sheet and so far little is known about them.   Getting into the lake is a huge technological challenge but the effort is worth it. These lakes are important for a number of reasons.  For example, because water acts as a lubricant to the ice above they may influence how the ice sheet flows. Their potential for unusual life forms could shed new light on evolution of life in harsh conditions; lake-floor sediments could yield vital clues to past climate.  They can also help us understand the extraterrestrial environment of Europa (one of the moons of Jupiter).”

Issued jointly by British Antarctic Survey, University of Edinburgh and Northumbria University

Athena Dinar, British Antarctic Survey – tel: ++44 1223 221414, mob:07740 822229, email: a.dinar@bas.ac.uk

Catriona Kelly, University of Edinburgh Press Office; Tel: 0131 651 4401; mobile: 07791 355940; email: Catriona.Kelly@ed.ac.uk

Katrina Alnikizil, Northumbria University.  Tel: (0191) 227 4905; email: Katrina.Alnikizil@northumbria.ac.uk
Ruth Laing, Northumbria University.  Tel: (0191) 227 4905; email: Ruth.Laing@northumbria.ac.uk

Notes to Editors:
Still images and graphics are available from the BAS Press Office as above.

Interview opportunities:
Professor Martin Siegert, University of Edinburgh.  Tel: 0131 650 7543; mobile: 07780 703008; email: m.j.siegert@ed.ac.uk

Professor David Vaughan, British Antarctic Survey, Tel: 01223 221643; email dgv@bas.ac.uk

The ‘deep field’ Lake Ellsworth team are: British Antarctic Survey’s (BAS) Dr Andy Smith, Dr Neil Ross from University of Edinburgh, Dr John Woodward from Northumbria University and Dr Dan Fitzgerald Field Assistant and polar guide. Because of the remoteness of their location interviews are difficult.

Since the 1970’s scientists have used radar, seismic and satellite technologies to discover over 150 lakes locked beneath Antarctica’s vast ice sheets.  The water beneath the ice remains liquid because of small levels of heat from the Earth’s core coming up through bedrock and from the insulating effect of several kilometres of ice above. The largest and most well known of these is Lake Vostok on East Antarctica. The lake is thought to be roughly the size of Lake Ontario.

Some subglacial lakes may be as old as the ice sheet. The age of the water within the lakes will be as old as the ice which melts into them, which in East Antarctic is around 1 million years.

More information at www.geos.ed.ac.uk/ellsworth and at www.geos.ed.ac.uk/research/ellsworth/blog.html

British Antarctic Survey is a world leader in research into global issues in an Antarctic context. It is the UK’s national operator and is a component of the Natural Environment Research Council.  It has an annual budget of around £40 million, runs nine research programmes and operates five research stations, two Royal Research Ships and five aircraft in and around Antarctica.

* International Polar Year 2007–2008 is the largest coordinated international scientific effort for 50 years. From ice sheets and space science to Arctic communities and the creatures of the Southern Ocean, IPY includes more than 200 Arctic and Antarctic projects and harnesses the skills of 50,000 people – including scientists, students and support staff – from more than 60 nations. IPY is sponsored by the International Council for Science (ICSU) and The World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

The University of Edinburgh is a charitable body, registered in Scotland, with registration number SC005336.