Next month, a 12-man team of scientists, engineers, and support staf will set off for Antarctica on a quest to collect samples from an ancient lake that has been buried for hundreds of thousands of years. The expedition has taken 16 years of planning and development. During the past three years, engineers at the British Antarctic Survey (BAC) and the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) have designed and built a titanium water-sampling probe and a sediment corer that will be lowered through through the three kilometres of antarctic ice the lake is buried under.
Once the team arrives on-site, and after drilling a three-kilometer hole with a hot-water drill, they will have just 24 hours to sample water and sediments from Lake Ellsworth. After that, the bore hole will re-freeze. The team, led by Martin Siegert, professor of geosciences at the University of Bristol, will be facing temperatures of -25°C on the surface of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet above the lake.
"For the first time we are standing at the threshold of making new discoveries about a part of our planet that has never been explored in this way," said Siegert. "Finding life in a lake that could have been isolated for up to half a million years is an exciting prospect, and the lake-bed sediments have the potential to paint a picture of the history of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in a way that we haven’t seen before. The team’s mission is to get into the deep field and bring back clean, valid samples of lake water and lake-bed sediments, which can be brought back to the UK for in depth analysis."
The expedition is going to great lengths to keep the lake from becoming contaminated. Every piece of equipment will be sterilised to space industry standards. The team is hoping to bring up samples sometime in December of this year.
"This time last year a small advance party transported nearly 70 tonnes of equipment 16,000 km from the UK to the drilling site," said Chris Hill, program manager at the British Antarctic Survey. "Now, one year later, we will ship another 26 tonnes of equipment on to the continent so that we can complete stage two of this challenging field mission. We set foot on the ice again in October and hope to bring samples to the surface in December 2012 - an historic moment we have all been waiting for."
(Photo courtesy the British Antarctic Survey)