Drilling into Subglacial Lakes in the Antarctic


Subglacial lakes are formed when geothermal heat beneath Antarctica melts the ice from below. Gravity and ice pressure cause this water to flow and collect in the valleys of the continent, far beneath the surface of the ice.

 Lake Ellsworth is a subglacial lake beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, covered by around 3.4 kilometres of ice and estimated to be about 10 kilometres long and 150 metres deep. Martin Siegert, the man who discovered Lake Ellsworth in 1996, plans to drill through the ice next week  with a team of scientists from England in hope of finding forms of microbial life that have evolved down there and an explanation of the history the ice sheet, which has grown and receded over time.

There is currently a great deal of scientific interest in subglacial lakes in Antarctica. A team of Russian scientists drilled into the first lake – Lake Vostok – in February, and an American team are also set to begin drilling into Lake Whillans next week. It is believed that there could be organisms beneath the ice that have evolved to cope with high water pressure, darkness and low nutrient levels. The team from Russia discovered thermophiles (bacteria that thrive in high temperatures) in the rock around the lake, although the top layers of lake itself were sterile. The lake is being revisited for further samples by the Russian team, but Lake Ellsworth may produce better results as it is much smaller (therefore there is a smaller area to search) and the ice above it is a kilometre thinner, making it more easily accessible.

These teams are the pioneers of subglacial research, but these three sites will not alone be able to explain the relationship between the lakes, rivers and ice sheets, or be able to reveal all the organisms that have been hidden beneath them.

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