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article imageDrilling hitch scuppers Antarctica's Lake Ellsworth scientists

By Robert Myles     Dec 28, 2012 in Science
Early on Christmas Day it was announced that a British expedition to investigate Lake Ellsworth, a sub-glacial lake over two miles below the surface of Antarctica, had to be called off.
The announcement by Professor Martin Siegert, Principal Investigator of the sub-glacial Lake Ellsworth project came during the early hours of Christmas morning after technical difficulties had been experienced with the drill hole already in progress.
The Lake Ellsworth project was recently highlighted in Digital Journal and involved sinking a 3.4 kilometre (2.1 miles) borehole through a mass of solid ice intending to drill down to Lake Ellsworth, one of 145 sub-glacial lakes so far found on the Antarctic continent, to take samples for analysis. It was hoped the samples would provide clues both to microbial life existing in an alien environment and also the climate of the Earth as it existed up to 800,000 years ago.
Up to Christmas Day, drilling at Lake Ellsworth had been proceeding well after a replacement part was fitted to the boiler used to heat water. The drilling process involved firing heated water into the drill hole, gradually melting a ‘pin-prick’ in the Antarctic ice intended to reach deep below to Lake Ellsworth.
With the drill hole having penetrated to a depth of 300 metres, a halt had to be called to drilling after it was discovered that the drill team had been unable to satisfactorily form a water filled cavity intended to link the main borehole with a secondary borehole, also at a 300 metre depth but located 2 miles away from the first, for the purposes of re-circulating drilling water back to the surface of the Lake Ellsworth drill site. Had the boreholes functioned correctly, their interaction would have operated as a valve to regulate the pressure of water from Lake Ellsworth once breakthrough to the sub-glacial lake was achieved.
In an announcement on the British Antarctic Survey’s website, Professor Siegert said,
“On Christmas Eve we took the decision to cease our efforts to directly measure and sample sub-glacial Lake Ellsworth. Although circumstances have not worked out as we would have wished, I am confident that through the huge efforts of the field team, and our colleagues in the UK, we have done as much as we possibly could have done, and I sincerely thank them all. I am also hugely grateful to the UK Natural Environment Research Council for making it possible for us to attempt the direct exploration of sub-glacial Antarctica. Sixteen years ago, we hypothesised that deep-water sub-glacial lakes are viable habitats for life, and contain important records of ice and climate history. For now, these hypotheses remain untested. Once back in the UK I will gather our consortium to seek ways in which our research efforts may continue. I remain confident that we will unlock the secrets of Lake Ellsworth in coming seasons.”
The Lake Ellsworth exploration team, for reasons still unclear, were unable to create a link between the two boreholes despite persevering for almost a day. During their attempts to create the link, hot water escaped into porous ice layers near the top of the drill shaft and was lost.
Attempts were made to replenish lost water stocks by melting snow but with the expedition relying on limited fuel supplies stockpiled when the Lake Ellsworth exploration site was set up a few months ago, the additional fuel used during the unexpected snow melting operation meant that it became unviable for the mission to continue.
In the video below, Professor Siegert was hopeful the team would be able to return to Lake Ellsworth at a future date once they had taken stock of lessons learned during the 2012 expedition. Commenting on the early curtailment of the Lake Ellsworth expedition, he said,
“This is of course, hugely frustrating for us, but we have learned a lot this year. By the end the equipment was working well, and much of it has now been fully field tested. A full report on the field season will be compiled when the engineers and programme manager return to UK.”
The Lake Ellsworth Consortium is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). It features two of NERC’s Centers of Excellence – British Antarctic Survey and the National Oceanography Centre – and nine UK universities.
Related article: Ancient Antarctic microbes suggest life but not as we know it
More about British Antarctic Survey, Antarctica, Lake Ellsworth, Lake Ellsworth bore hole, subglacial lakes
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