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January 23, 2012

Scientists Search for Life Beneath Antarctic Ice

by Henry Ridgwell

Britain is marking the centenary of Captain Scott's expedition to reach the South Pole. The legacy of the ill-fated journey continues to this day, as scientists trek to the world's most inhospitable lands to discover more about our planet's extremes. The latest British expedition has just returned from Antarctica, where they are preparing to drill over three kilometers into the ice to reach a sub-glacial lake that could support unknown life forms.

The expedition's transport plane makes its final approach to the Union Glacier ice runway. It's summer in Antarctica. The average temperature, minus 30 Celsius.

This current mission by the British Antarctic Survey is one of the most ambitious ever attempted. Preparations have been spread over two summers.

David Pearce is a microbiologist with the survey team. "In the 1970s sub-glacial lakes were discovered for the first time. And it was realized that there could potentially be a whole new ecosystem under the ice that we really didn't know anything about," he explained. "This ecosystem may contain very interesting forms of life as it's been isolated from the biosphere for several million years."

Just getting the equipment to the drilling site requires an extraordinary journey. Five sea containers full of gear - 70 tonnes' worth - have been flown in.

A tractor train hauls the equipment across the remaining 250 kilometers of snow and ice to the base camp location way above Lake Ellsworth. Drilling will begin at the end of 2012.  The technology to access sub-glacial lakes has only just been developed.

"They're about 3.5 kilometers down and that has to be accessed by, in our case, a hot water drill. So we drill down using a hose attached to a hot water generator and that blasts its way through the ice to make a small hole. We then send down a probe and we can bring back samples of water and sediment material," Pearce said.

The Lake Ellsworth project coincides with the centenary of British explorer Captain Scott's mission to the South Pole. Using sleds, a few dogs and horses, Scott set out to become the first person to reach the Pole. He was just beaten to it by Norwegian Roald Amundsen. All five of Scott's expedition party died on the return journey.

Alasdair Macleod, a curator of the Captain Scott exhibition at London's Royal Geographical Society, says Scott's legacy lives on.

"The 25 volumes of data that were the published around marine biology, botany and meteorology were really the first sets of scientific data that we have about Antarctica. And so from that point onwards, Scott's legacy really was the fact that today, people like the British Antarctic Survey can do their work using that data to retro-model climate change for example," Macleod said.

The technology may now be more advanced. But the scientists involved in the Lake Ellsworth project say the thrill of exploring the unknown continues to inspire expeditions to the planet's extremes.