Ottawa Citizen

Search for life un­der Antarc­tica stops

Sci­en­tists ran out of fuel for hot-water drill


LON­DON • Bri­tish re­searchers look­ing for life in a lake un­der three kilo­me­tres of Antarc­tic ice have called off their mis­sion af­ter drilling de­lays led to a fuel short­age.

The team de­cided to halt work on Dec. 25 af­ter fail­ing to link two bore­holes 300 me­tres be­neath the ice, ac­cord­ing to the Bri­tish Antarc­tic Sur­vey, part of the drilling group.

The re­searchers will have to wait at least an­other year to try reach­ing Lake Ellsworth, which has been iso­lated un­der the West Antarc­tic ice sheet for hun­dreds of thou­sands of years. They’d hoped to test water sam­ples for mi­cro­bial life and search the lake bed for clues into the past cli­mate of Antarc­tica.

“This is, of course, hugely frus­trat­ing for us, but we have learned a lot this year,” prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor Martin Siegert said Thurs­day in an email state­ment. “I re­main con­fi­dent that we will un­lock the se­crets of Lake Ellsworth in coming sea­sons.”

The re­searchers had strug­gled with a leak­ing cav­ity, de­signed to link the main bore­hole with a sec­ondary hole used to re­cir­cu­late drilling water back to the sur­face. They used so much fuel melt­ing snow that they didn’t have enough to com­plete the project, which re­lied on a pres­sur­ized hot-water drill.

Siegert, a pro­fes­sor of geo­sciences at the Univer­sity of Ed­in­burgh, first thought of search­ing for life in Antarc­tica’s un­der­ground lakes 16 years ago. Lake Ellsworth was cho­sen as a tar­get for the $13 mil­lion US project eight years later. It’s one of at least 387 known sub-glacial Antarc­tic lakes, which formed deep be­low the sur­face as the pres­sure ex­erted by thou­sands of me­tres of ice drove down the freez­ing point of water.

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