December 5, 2012 - A British team has arrived in Antarctica
to begin a search for life in a lake
that has lain buried under nearly 10,000ft of ice for up to a half a million years.
Scientists from the British Antarctic Survey
are preparing to bore down to the subglacial Lake Ellsworth, deep beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet, to collect samples of water and sediment.
Toiling under the midnight sun, they will endure temperatures well below freezing in a quest to discover whether life can survive in one of the harshest environments on Earth.
The Lake Ellsworth drill site on the West Antarctic ice sheet: Four British scientists arrived at the site yesterday to finalise preparations for drilling down to a lake locked beneath nearly 10,000ft of ice
Should they find any organisms living in the icy depths, it could offer tantalising clues as to how life might look if it exists elsewhere in the solar system, such as in the ice-covered oceans of Jupiter's moon Europa.
The ambitious search comes after a U.S. team last week announced that they had discovered another lake locked for 3,000 years beneath 65ft of Antarctic glacier was teeming with living organisms.
But the Lake Ellsworth mission will drill far deeper, into a far more extreme environment, which scientists believe has been isolated for at least 100,000 years - and probably much longer.
Mike Bentley, a geologist on the team at Durham University, told the Guardian: 'Extreme environments tell you what constraints there are on life.
'If we find a particular set of environments where life can't exist, that creates some bookends: it tells you about the limits of life.'
For Queen and country: The mission is the most ambitious attempt yet to use hot water drilling to penetrate deep beneath the glaciers which coat our planets southernmost continent
One of more than 400 subglacial lakes in Antarctica, Ellsworth is equivalent in size to the UK's Lake Windermere, measuring 7.5 miles long by 1.8 miles wide, and nearly 500ft deep.
Completely cut off from any light from the Sun, any life lurking beneath its waters must endure complete darkness, intense pressure and subzero temperatures.
It is only geothermal heat from the Earth's core and the intense pressure exerted by the weight of the ice above that has kept it liquid.
Four scientists arrived at the camp above the lake yesterday, where they joined a team of engineers who have spent the past month preparing the equipment that will be used to penetrate the icy crust.
This week they will finalise the preparations for the three-day drilling hot water drilling operation set to begin December 12.
Technology: The BAS team will melt their way into the lake using a 2 mile-long hose tipped with a brass nozzle that sprays sterile water heated to 90C at a pressure of 2,000lbs per square inch
Under pressure: They will first bore down to 1,000ft, then stop to create a cavity, then drill a second hole all the way down to the lake.