Antarctica Drill to Probe for Life Under 2 Miles of Ice

Antarctica Scientists to Probe for Life Under Two Miles of Ice
A British engineering team heads off to Antarctica for the first stage of an ambitious scientific mission to collect water and sediment samples from a lake buried beneath three kilometres of solid ice. Photographer: Pete Bucktrout/British Antarctic Survey via Bloomberg

British researchers are preparing to drill 3 kilometers (2 miles) through ice in Antarctic to search for life in a lake that’s been isolated from the outside world for hundreds of thousands of years.

The team started a boiler that will melt the snow and fuel a drill boring through the ice using pressurized hot water, Chris Hill, program manager for the Lake Ellsworth drilling project, said today by satellite phone from the continent. The site is near the center of the west Antarctic ice sheet, about 70 kilometers west of the Ellsworth Mountains.

“It looks like we’re on schedule to start drilling tomorrow,” said Hill, who works for the British Antarctic Survey, one of six main contributors to the project. “Our first hitch was trying to fire up the boiler, and it has suffered a bit of cold damage over the winter. That’s all looking good now.”

The 8-million-pound ($13 million) project intends to recover water and sediment samples from the lake, helping determine whether life exists there. It will broaden scientific understanding of the extreme conditions under which life can survive. A sediment core from the base of the lake may also help shed light on when the Antarctic ice cap last retreated.

The researchers plan some test drills first. Then they’ll drill 300 meters (984 feet) into the ice and form a cavity, which will be filled with water, according to Hill. The next step is to drill a separate hole through the cavity and down to the lake. When drilling is complete, they’ll lower a sampling probe to recover water and sediment.

“We’ll probably reach the lake around Sunday, and retract the drill by Monday and start deploying the instruments late Monday or Tuesday,” Hill said.

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