Researchers begin exploration of lake hidden beneath Antarctica's ice sheet

By Redazione

A team of British scientists has begun exploring an ancient lake hidden deep beneath Antarctica’s ice sheet to find clues to life on Earth, climate change and future sea-level rise, camped out
at one of the most remote places on Earth, the team is conducting a series of experiments on the permanently ice-covered lake. It believes the site may harbour unique life forms, which have had
to adapt to total darkness, low nutrient levels, high water pressures and isolation from the atmosphere for hundreds of thousands of years.

Glaciologist and leader of the project Dr Andy Smith said: ‘this is the first phase of what we think is an incredibly exciting project. We know the lake is 3.2km beneath the ice; long and thin
and around 18 km2 in area. First results from our experiments have shown the lake is 105m deep. This means Lake Ellsworth is a deep-water body and confirms the lake as an ideal site for future
exploration missions to detect microbial life and recover climate records.

‘If the survey work goes well, the next phase will be to build a probe, drill down into the lake and explore and sample the lake water. The UK could do this as soon as 2012/13,’ he added.

The exploration of ‘subglacial’ Lake Ellsworth, West Antarctica, involves scientists from 14 UK universities and research institutes, as well as colleagues from Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Chile,
the US and New Zealand. As a component of a plan to explore Antarctic Subglacial Lake Environments, its aim is to understand how life may function in this unique and extreme environment, and to
measure climate records that may exist in sediments on the lake floor.

The research plan involves two stages. The first is to undertake a geophysical survey of the lake. Stage two is to explore and sample the lake, which could take place around the end of the

According to the International Polar Year project Principal Investigator, Professor Martin Siegert from the University of Edinburgh, ‘We are particularly interested in Lake Ellsworth because
it’s likely to have been isolated from the surface for hundreds of thousands of years. Radar measurements made previously from aircraft surveys suggest that the lake is connected to others that
could drain ice from the West Antarctic Ice sheet to the ocean and contribute to sea-level rise.’

‘Around 150 lakes have been discovered beneath Antarctica’s vast ice sheet and so far little is known about them. Getting into the lake is a huge technological challenge but the effort is worth
it. These lakes are important for a number of reasons. For example, because water acts as a lubricant to the ice above they may influence how the ice sheet flows. Their potential for unusual
life forms could shed new light on evolution of life in harsh conditions; lake-floor sediments could yield vital clues to past climate. They can also help us understand the extraterrestrial
environment of Europa (one of the moons of Jupiter)’ said Professor Siegert.

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