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Lake Ellsworth drill hits deep trouble

Scientists deploying the drill down the borehole on Friday last week.


The long-planned attempt to probe Antarctica’s subglacial Lake Ellsworth was halted abruptly on Saturday by major technical issues — namely a broken boiler.

On Wednesday 12 December, a British team began the hot-water drill, which uses a high-pressure jet of hot water to blast through the 3.2-kilometre-thick ice that covers the ancient lake. At 60 metres depth, the scientists experienced a technical issue with the sensors on the drill nozzle. Drilling resumed on Saturday, but the team was soon forced to stop again when the boiler that generates the hot water required for the drill stopped working.

The scientists are now waiting for spare parts to arrive at the remote site. It is unlikely that they will be able to resume drilling before 21 December.

As the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) explains:

During the weekend a technical issue halted hot water drilling at Subglacial Lake Ellsworth. On the afternoon of Saturday 15th December 2012, the field team encountered a serious problem with the main boiler that is used to generate the hot water required for drilling down to the lake.

As reported on, several days ago the primary burner controller circuit failed upon start up. A secondary burner was fitted and a new circuit ordered to replace the primary one. The secondary burner ran successfully for 4 to 5 days — enough to melt the water required and to begin drilling the borehole for the cavity. Unfortunately, the burner failed at approximately 3pm local time on Saturday.

BAS says that its engineering team is in contact with the manufacturers, and is awaiting a replacement part, which should arrive within a few days. It goes on to say: “If not, a further option is to attempt to bypass the circuit and manually ‘drive’ the burner.”

If all goes according to plan, Lake Ellsworth will be the second subglacial lake in Antarctica to be breached. The first was Lake Vostok, which Russian scientists penetrated in February this year.


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