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UK team abandons effort to reach subglacial Antarctic lake

British Antarctic Survey researchers attempted to use high-pressure hot water to bore through three kilometres of ice to reach Lake Ellsworth.


It wasn’t a very merry Christmas for a team of UK scientists seeking to breach the three kilometres of ice that covers a subglacial Antarctic lake. On the evening of 24 December, Martin Siegert, a glaciologist at the University of Bristol, UK, ended his team’s quest to drill to Lake Ellsworth in western Antarctica.

The team was hoping to find signs of microbial life in Lake Ellsworth, and to better understand Antarctica’s climate history, by sampling the lake’s water and sediment beds. They had planned a three-day assault on Lake Ellsworth, using a high-powered drill that melted the ice with a jet of water heated close to boiling point (see ‘Hunt for life under Antarctic ice heats up‘ and the graphic from that story below).

Progress proceeded more slowly than expected, and Siegert called off the drilling when his team calculated that they would not have enough fuel to reach the lake’s surface, he explained in a video posted today to the expedition’s website.

Their plans involved drilling two boreholes — one to reach the lake surface, and a second parallel borehole to recirculate drilling water. The second borehole was to intersect the main borehole at a depth of 300 metres. But Siegert’s team spent more than 20 hours and burned too much fuel in a failed attempt to make that connection.

“This is of course, hugely frustrating for us, but we have learned a lot this year. By the end the equipment was working well, and much of it has now been fully field tested,” Siegert said. “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.”




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