Antarctic Researchers Cancel Search for Life 2 Miles Down

U.K. researchers hunting for life in a lake under 3 kilometers (2 miles) of Antarctic ice called off their mission after drilling delays led to a fuel shortage.

The team decided to halt work on Dec. 25 after failing to link two boreholes 300 meters beneath the ice, according to the British Antarctic Survey, part of the drilling group.

The researchers will have to wait at least another year to try reaching Lake Ellsworth, which has been isolated under the West Antarctic ice sheet for hundreds of thousands of years. They’d hoped to test water samples for microbial life and search the lake bed for clues into the past climate of Antarctica.

“This is, of course, hugely frustrating for us, but we have learned a lot this year,” principal investigator Martin Siegert said today in an e-mailed statement. “I remain confident that we will unlock the secrets of Lake Ellsworth in coming seasons.”

The researchers had struggled with a leaking cavity, designed to link the main borehole with a secondary hole used to recirculate drilling water back to the surface. They used so much fuel melting snow to fill the cavern that they didn’t have enough to complete the project, which relied on a pressurized hot-water drill.

Siegert, a professor of geosciences at the University of Edinburgh, first thought of searching for life in Antarctica’s underground lakes 16 years ago. Ellsworth was chosen as a target for the 8 million-pound ($13 million) project eight years later.

It’s one of at least 387 known sub-glacial Antarctic lakes, which formed deep below the surface as the pressure exerted by thousands of meters of ice drove down the freezing point of water.

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