Invisible Dust

London | Sunday 21 January
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Scientists Explore Antarctica’s Buried Lakes


05/12/2012

Scientists set up camp around the frozen lake, image courtesy of Ellsworth Live website

In October, British scientists travelled to Antarctica to sample water and sediments from Lake Ellsworth. Lake Ellsworth is one of more than 400 sub-glacial lakes, and is buried under three kilometres of solid ice. Starting in December, and working in conditions of -25°C and constant, extreme winds, scientists will use a custom-built hot water drill to pierce the ice and collect the samples. They will use space industry standards of sterilisation to make sure that the lake, which is still unexplored, remains uncontaminated.

What exactly are they looking to find under all that ice? The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) are interested in potential forms of microbial life which may have evolved in the lake’s unique conditions – that is to say, in total darkness, under extreme pressure, and isolated for almost a half million years. Any potential findings at Lake Ellsworth could provide great insight both about the origins of life on Earth, and about the possibility of life on other planets with similar environments. Of course, it is not certain that they will find any signs of life at all. In that case, the mission will have been helpful to understanding the limits of survival – and consequently, it will help scientists have an informed idea about which environments could never be conducive to the evolution of life forms.

The composition of the lake floor sediment itself could also give clues as to past climate change. Should the scientists find remains of microbial life even in the deepest sediments, they would be able to surmise that Antarctica had once been a more inhabitable – and therefore, probably warmer – environment.

This research into the most unexplored part of the Earth is the result of collaboration between two Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Centres of Excellence, and eight UK universities.

 

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