One of more than 145 subglacial lakes in Antarctica, Lake Ellsworth is considered to be one of the lakes most suited to exploratory research. The lake was first explored in 2007-08 when a small team of scientists from the Science and Engineering Department at The University of Edinburgh
mapped the outline of the lake by using seismic and radar surveys. Scientists were also able to determine that the lake's sediment was suitable for coring, allowing researchers to gather a history of the ice shelf. Using the data gathered in 2007-2008, researchers are preparing to reveal the historical secrets held by the lake for the past half million years.
Scientists are hopeful they will be able to prove their theory that microbes are capable of living in the lake, despite the high pressures and lack of sunlight. They also believe the lake holds clues to the past climate of the earth by analyzing the sediment. The sediment researchers will gather may show that Antarctica was once much warmer than it is today, which possibly lead to a collapse of the ice sheet at some point during the earth's history. Chris Hill, a member of the research team, told Sky News
"There is a strong body of evidence that the ice sheet has collapsed at some point in our history causing a significant sea level rise across the planet. It is known to be unstable now and is likely to collapse at some point in the future. We just don't know when or what could cause it."
Due to the extreme weather conditions in Antarctica, as well as the depth of ice that must be drilled before even reaching the lake, exploration of Lake Ellsworth has proven to be a painstaking planning process. Bristol University's Martin Siegert, chief scientist for the project, told the BBC
"We're very excited about this work and we're very much looking forward to doing science that has taken us so long to plan. The first challenge was to develop the equipment and we've done that. The second was to keep it clean and we've done that. The third was to get it to Antarctica in a clean way and we've done that too."
In order to reach the lake, the research team will deploy a hot-water drill to slice a hole from the ice surface down to the lake. That process presents another challenge for the researchers. The equipment must remain sterile at all times so that none of the samples become contaminated. This means the equipment must be thoroughly checked on a regular basis, while still working as quickly as possible before the drill hole begins to refreeze.
On Monday, scientists tested the probe that will be used to collect samples, as well as practicing to use the crane that will deploy the probe.
Researchers are hopeful drilling of the sediment can begin this week. Once those samples are gathered, researchers hope to finally unlock the secrets of the lost world of Lake Ellsworth.