UK: Buried Antarctic lake to be explored

An international group of scientists is preparing to explore an ancient lake hidden deep beneath Antarctica's ice sheet - but it will take them five years just to develop the equipment they will need for the job.

The group of researchers from nine UK universities, the British Antarctic Survey and the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, has received funding from Britain's Natural Environment Research Council to investigate Lake Ellsworth.

The lake is buried under three kilometres of ice in Western Antarctica and may have been isolated for hundreds of thousands of years. The scientists will be looking for unique forms of life as well as information about climate change and future sea-level rises.

The expedition is scheduled for 2012-2013, and the researchers will use the lead-in time to acquire and develop the technologies needed for the project. Once in the field, they will sample water from the lake for tiny life forms and extract sediment from the lake bed to find clues as to how the climate has changed over many millennia.

Consortium leader Professor Martin Siegert, from the University of Edinburgh, said the team would be the first to explore the lake: "It is a dark, cold place that has been sealed from the outside world and it's likely to contain unique forms of life. We hope to discover more about how life can exist in extreme environments and how Antarctica has changed in the past - which might help us understand more about other places on earth."

British Antarctic Survey head of technology and engineering David Blake said the technology required to drill three kilometres through the ice without contaminating the lake was ambitious: "Over the next few years we will build a hot water drill and probe, and make preparations to transport a sophisticated operation deep into the interior of West Antarctica. We really are at the frontiers of scientific exploration."

* More information on the project is available here