British Antarctic Survey Admits Defeat, Calls Off Lake Ellsworth Drilling Project
December 27, 2012

British Antarctic Survey Admits Defeat, Calls Off Lake Ellsworth Drilling Project

[Watch Video: Professor Martin Siegert Calls Off Lake Ellsworth Project]

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

An ambitious expedition to search for life in one of the world´s most remote regions has ended in failure early Christmas morning. Team members from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) called off a project to drill through two miles of Antarctica´s ice sheet to reach Lake Ellsworth due to problems linking boreholes in the ice.

With winter fast approaching on the frozen continent, Professor Martin Siegert, project leader of the Subglacial Lake Ellsworth experiment, said the team will now have to winterize the research equipment and hope for better luck when they return perhaps next summer.

The drilling had suffered a setback last week when an electrical component on the main boiler system failed and a spare part also failed to fix the issue. The team sent for a replacement part, which did fix the issue; yet excess fuel was used up keeping the secondary boiler running to keep the drill from freezing.

Despite a successful past weekend of drilling, Siegert halted the project on Christmas morning at about 1,000 feet beneath the ice. A cavity that was meant to connect the main borehole with a secondary borehole used to recirculate drilling water back to the surface could not be linked. The team had no immediate answers as to why the link could not be established, but after 20 hours of continued attempts, the team admitted defeat. The extra time taken to try to establish the link used up too much of their fuel and hot water, which would have left the team unable to continue drilling even if the link had been made.

The $13-million project aimed to explore life in the depths of Lake Ellsworth, far below the Antarctic ice sheet. The lake, which has been secluded from the rest of the world for more than 500,000 years, could hold secrets to the continent´s early history, as well as evidence of past climates. The team also planned to search for signs of microbial life in the remote Subglacial lake, which could aid in life theories on distant planets and moons, such as Jupiter's natural satellite Europa.

While the mission ended in failure, Siegert said the team had “learned a lot.”

“Although circumstances have not worked out as we would have wished, I am confident that through the huge efforts of the field team, and our colleagues in the UK, we have done as much as we possibly could have done, and I sincerely thank them all. I am also hugely grateful to the UK Natural Environment Research Council for making it possible for us to attempt the direct exploration of subglacial Antarctica,” Siegert said in a statement.

“Sixteen years ago, we hypothesized that deep-water subglacial lakes are viable habitats for life, and contain important records of ice and climate history. For now, these hypotheses remain untested. Once back in the UK I will gather our consortium to seek ways in which our research efforts may continue. I remain confident that we will unlock the secrets of Lake Ellsworth in coming seasons,” he added.

“A full report on the field season will be compiled when the engineers and program manager return to UK,” concluded Siegert.

“We will try again, but it is uncertain when that will be. There will have to be a full report into what's gone wrong,” Audrey Stevens, a spokesperson for the BAS, told BBC News.

The team is packing up and winterizing the equipment. It could be more than another season before the team can return for another attempt.

Stevens said while BAS has not seen its mission as a race to be the first to drill to an Antarctic lake, she admits that other nations could get there first. There are other lakes out there beneath the ice, several that are perhaps easier to get to.

In fact, Russia has already been the first to drill through Antarctica´s ice, drilling at Lake Vostok in February 2012. However, Russian scientists have yet to officially report on any of their findings.

BBC´s science editor, David Shukman, had this to say:

“Searching for life in the hidden waters of Lake Ellsworth was one of the most ambitious British science projects of recent years, so this failure in the drilling programme will come as a huge blow. The team knew that the risks were high, but the idea of exploring an ancient and mysterious body of water isolated for hundreds of thousands of years had inspired passion and determination. The challenge of designing and engineering equipment that could remain sterilized on the long journey to Antarctica, and then down through the 3km of ice-sheet, was immense and involved hundreds of people.”

“So the disappointment will be felt far beyond the 12 men at their remote camp on the ice. Engineers, technicians, support staff - and researchers eager for the results - will feel heavy disappointment. They may try again next year. But this was frontier science, a gamble, and it did not pay off,” he concluded.