Antarctic Expedition Looks For Life In Lake Under Ice Sheet
September 10, 2012

Antarctic Expedition Looks For Life In Lake Under Ice Sheet

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

A team of 12 British scientists are about to embark on a grueling two-and-a-half month expedition to search for life in Lake Ellsworth, which is located 1.6 miles below the surface of the Antarctic ice sheet.

The British Antarctic Survey expedition, which also aims to find out the overall stability of the ice sheet, will be closely observed by NASA as a model for future space missions to the icy moons of Jupiter where it is believed that “extremophile” microbes are living in harsh conditions deep below a thick layer of ice.

The $13 million dollar mission will involve the transport of 110 tons of equipment to one of the most-remote places on the planet where scientists will eat, sleep and live during the study.

“This time last year a small ℠advance party´ transported nearly 70 tonnes (77 short tons) of equipment 16,000km (10,000 miles) from the UK to the drilling site. One year later, we will ship another 26 tonnes (28 short tons) of equipment so we can complete stage two of this challenging field mission,” Chris Hill, the mission´s program manager, told the British Science Festival in Aberdeen. “We set foot on the ice again in October and hope to bring samples to the surface in December 2012.”

The drill consists mainly of a high-pressure, high-temperature water jet that will melt a hole through the ice. Once the drill is through the ice shelf, it will be pulled back up through the borehole so that scientific instruments to be lowered to sample the lake and its muddy floor. A testing station at the expedition site will allow the team to immediately check for signs of life.

“The simple question we will be posing is: could life adapt to these extreme environments. It is only microbes that would have any chance of living in these extreme conditions,” said Professor John Purnell of Aberdeen University. “Finding evidence of such compounds would show us that if life can withstand even the deepest, darkest and most isolated conditions for more than a million years, then it has the ability to exist anywhere — and by that I mean not just on Earth.”

The lake bed sediments will also be tested for clues that might point to the stability of the ice shelf. Ancient seashell fossils that can be accurately dated would indicate the last time the ice sheet broke up and multicellular organisms populated the lake.

"Society needs to know the risk of a collapse," of the ice sheet, Martin Siegert, of the University of Bristol told Reuters.

"One way to find out (the risks of collapse) is to know when it last happened," he added. "We are finally ready to hit the ℠go' button," he said. Siegert also noted that the plan to drill into the lake sediments had received little publicity compared to the expedition´s search for microbial life.

Besides the British, the U.S. and Russia are also planning scientific expeditions to sub-glacial lakes within the next year or two.