Antarctic scientists begin drilling towards pristine Lake Ellsworth

Most of the gear for the Lake Ellsworth project had to be flown in Photo: British Antarctic Survey

They're off! Scientists in Antarctica have started drilling to look for life in one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth.

They will be drilling into Lake Ellsworth which is about 3.2km (2 miles) deep, under the ice cap and is about as big as Lake Windermere. They will take water samples and drill into the lake bed, looking for life in the sediments below the lake.

Watch Chris Hill, Ellsworth programme manager, putting the finishing touches to the equipment:

But it is a very odd type of drilling. The drill is a very long hose pipe that they will lower into a hole.

Then the 12-man team will shovel like they have never shovelled before - filling a boiler with snow.

That will be heated and pressurised and pushed into the hose pipe melting a drill hole about as wide as a CD and 3km deep.

Here are some of the astonishing figures from the mission:

  • Lake Ellsworth is 14km long and 150m deep at its lowest point
  • It lies below 3.2km of ice
  • 270,000 litres of snow need to be melted to drill the bore hole
  • The drill hose is 3.4km long
A 3D rendering of Lake Ellsworth Credit: British Antarctic Survey

Then comes the high tech - a titanium probe to take the water samples and a gadget called a corer.

It is just like a giant apple-corer - a metal ring that is hammered into the sediments and then withdrawn with the samples safely on board.

The timetable is crucial: Once they have made the drill hole, it will instantly start to freeze over and in 24 hours will be frozen solid.

This animation shows how the corer will extract sample from Lake Ellsmere:

Video by kind permission from UWITEC manufacturers of the sediment corer.

They can't risk taking lifeforms down with the drill because that would contaminate their samples, so all of the kit has to be sterile.

They think unique forms of microbial life could have evolved in Lake Ellsworth’s extremely cold, pitch black and pristine environment.

These life forms may have been isolated for up to a million years. If so, the lake will provide clues about the potential origin of life on Earth, and shape scientific thinking about the evolution of life on other planets.

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