Key tests in search for life in frozen Antarctic lake

Probe equipment The tests will take place in very challenging conditions

Crucial training has begun for a project to search for life in a lake hidden beneath the Antarctic ice-sheet.

Scientists and engineers are rehearsing the most challenging stages of the drilling operation planned for Lake Ellsworth.

The goal is to gather samples of water and sediment in a hunt for microbial organisms and clues about past climate.

Training is focused on the handling of a water sampling device and a corer to extract sediment from the lake floor.

To avoid contamination, the drilling has to be undertaken in conditions cleaner than those required in an operating theatre.

The rehearsals are taking place at the National Oceanography Centre at Southampton with the team that will be deployed to Antarctica later this year.

The equipment has to remain sterile to avoid polluting the lake - believed to have been isolated for up to 500,000 years - and to preserve the value of the samples.

This level of hygiene has never been attempted before in the exacting conditions of a polar region.

Blasting a hole

The plan calls for a hot-water drill to blast a hole through the two-mile-thick ice sheet within three days.

Readying the equipment The equipment will need to be kept sterile

The assumption is that the hole will remain open for 24 hours - allowing a brief window for the different probes to be deployed.

At the quay side in Southampton, a deep storm drain serves as a location for the first tests of the system, and the water sampling device has been lowered inside it.

A specially-adapted shipping container, mounted on rails above the drain, provides shelter and holds the winching mechanism for 4,000m of cable - long enough to reach through the ice sheet to the dark waters of the lake below.

Each component is kept sterile within air-tight plastic compartments tested to withstand the temperatures of -30C expected in the field.

The task of connecting and disconnecting the different probes has to be carried out by reaching into the compartments using in-built rubber gloves - an awkward process in the benign weather of a spring day on the English South Coast, but potentially nightmarish in a punishing wind chill.

First run

In the first run, attaching and lowering the water sampling device took 44 minutes; extracting it took 32 minutes, and the team was reasonably satisfied.

Start Quote

Every minute will count before the drill-hole re-freezes but working in icy conditions is bound to add delay and complication”

End Quote

In the actual operation, every minute will count before the drill-hole re-freezes; but working in icy conditions is bound to add delay and complication.

In the first day of testing, the team encountered some teething problems including the design of some of the clamps holding components in position. These can, though, be re-engineered.

According to Ed Waugh, who designed the electronics for the water sampling device, the trials are "a useful way of getting a feel for the task".

Detailed planning includes a step-by-step guide to each stage of the operation - with no fewer than 20 steps for the job of getting the water sampling probe into position, and another 13 to deploy it.

At key points, components will go through further careful cleaning with ethanol and a thorough sterilisation with hydrogen peroxide vapour which, to add to the challenges, has to kept above 15C.

Once the hole has been blasted open with hot water, a probe carrying an ultraviolet light will be lowered to sterilise its upper section.

That will then be followed by the water sampling device - its descent captured live by HD cameras - and then the sediment corer. If time allows, each will be deployed a second time.

Graphic of Lake Ellsworth exploration

1. A hot water drill will melt through the frozen ice sheet, which is up to 3km (2 miles) thick. After drilling, they will have an estimated 24 hours to collect samples before the borehole re-freezes

2. A probe will be lowered through the borehole to capture water samples

3. A specialised corer will then recover sediment from the floor of the lake through the same borehole

Source: Subglacial Lake Ellsworth Consortium

All this has to be carried out in the notoriously cold and windy environment of West Antarctica.

The tests will continue at Southampton for several months, culminating in a "dress rehearsal". Then the the equipment will be packed up to be shipped south in August.

Five containers of heavy gear including the hot-water drill were delivered to the lake site earlier this year, where they will stay under wraps through the polar winter.

After 10 years of planning and two years of design and engineering, the project is entering a critical phase.

By the end of the year, if all goes according to plan, we should have the first sight - and the first samples - of a lost world beneath the ice.

David Shukman Article written by David Shukman David Shukman Science editor

Deep sea mining licences issued

The UN's seabed authority issues exploration licences that accelerate a search for valuable minerals on the ocean floor.

Read full article

More on This Story

Related Stories


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    If we discover life here, it would show that life can survive anywhere with liquid water. Whether it can begin there is a different matter, but it would show a real possibility of extraterrestrial life in our own solar system. We have 6 bodies that could support life either historically or presently, in just an 8-planet system. Doubt there's anything as complex as us, but it'd be a huge discovery.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Mankind at its worst if you ask me, is there anything we will leave untouched on planet Earth, i think not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    The plan calls for a hot-water drill to blast a hole through the two-mile-thick ice sheet within three days.

    Er . . . No. Blasting is precisely what a hot-water drill does NOT do.

    I can't help but wonder, though, what effect the inevitable introduction of melt-water, as the drill breaks through, will have on this project.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Scientists have tested what exists below the Antarctic many times before, I wish scientists would spend more money and research into finding out more about what can or will affect our daily lives, there could be food shortage in 50 years time, so I would like to see scientists drilling holes into the sun to see it’s potential for future generations to come.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    @7. Kernel Dosser

    They drill bore holes for water in Africa constantly - evidently its not the lack of drilling that is the problem.

    And seeing as they are doing this to research past climates in order to try to evaluate future climates, it's probably fair to say that a lot of Africa could take quite a lot of benefit from the research!

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    people have down graded @1 for some reason. Why do we have to disturb every corner of this planet?. The research is being done under ultra sterile conditions - let`s hope whatever they find doesn`t become a `Satan Bug`. There might be a good reason to leave it undisturbed in the freezer - don`t open Pandoras Box!

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    @8 Then get off your computer or phone, invented by scientists, stop using anything invented by scientists, including usable electricity or plastic, and go live in a cave.

    Respect for the scientists that push the boundaries of knowledge.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Truly amazing. I was born fifty years too early, otherwise I would be doing all I could to join the team. All praise to those scientists who have a healthy curiosity and are willing to try something new.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Hopefully this project spurs peoples imagination a little and leads to looking for life on Europa :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    A waste of time and money, scientists are just nosey parkers who can't keep there nose of things, the Antarctic should be left alone, it's one of the few natuaral places left on earth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I know it must be a fab project and all, but let's drill boreholes in Africa for clean drinking water before embarking on such a caper

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Neil, (comment 2) The Russian's at Lake Vostok have apparently all vanished since the core break through!....on a happier note, this is all good practise for the Europa mission .. now if theres nothing worth bagging out there i'll be the only life in the solar village monkey's uncle!

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    This is great engineering and exciting science. Hopefully a rehearsal for sending probes to the deep oceans of Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's Enceladus in the search for extraterrestrial life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Now that's what I call ice fishing!

    Seriously though a very exciting time, the ultimate "time capsule" so to speak.

    This research, along with that already completed by the Russians, will give us, perhaps, a further insight into how life developed on Earth. That alone is worth the costs.

    I just hope they don't mess up their sterilization protocols and queer the pitch.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    If there is life down there, then there probably has been life down there for millions of years. This would mean that there is also the chance of oil in the vicinity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Mr Shukman's report would have been more interesting if he had included a paragraph on the latest news about the results of water samples already taken by the Russian's from Lake Vostok.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    If there is anything living down there, why can't we just leave them alone?

    They have done nothing to deserve "us".


Page 2 of 2



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.