Liquid Locked in Ice

Categories: Extreme Life
Diagram showing the exploration of subglacial Lake Ellsworth.
Credit: BAS

A four-man science team led by British Antarctic Survey’s (BAS) Dr Andy Smith has begun exploring an ancient lake hidden deep beneath Antarctica’s ice sheet. The lake – the size of Lake Windermere in the United Kingdom – could yield vital clues to life on Earth, climate change and future sea-level rise.

Glaciologist Dr Smith and his colleagues from the Universities of Edinburgh and Northumbria are camped out at one of the most remote places on Earth conducting a series of experiments on the ice. He says, “This is the first phase of what we think is an incredibly exciting project. We know the lake is 3.2 km beneath the ice; long and thin and around 18 km2 in area. First results from our experiments have shown the lake is 105m deep. This means Lake Ellsworth is a deep-water body and confirms the lake as an ideal site for future exploration missions to detect microbial life and recover climate records. In addition, studying the lake requires the development of technologies that will help us search for life on distant locations like Jupiter’s moon Europa, which may also support bodies of liquid water beneath its icy surface.

The research team includes Dr. Dan Fitzgerald and Dr. John Woodward of the University of Northumbria, Dr. Andy Smith of the British Antarctic Survey and Dr. Neil Ross of University of Edinburgh.
Credit: BAS

“If the survey work goes well, the next phase will be to build a probe, drill down into the lake and explore and sample the lake water. The UK could do this as soon as 2012/13.”

This ambitious exploration of ‘subglacial’ Lake Ellsworth, West Antarctica, involves scientists from 14 UK universities and research institutes, as well as colleagues from Chile, USA, Sweden, Belgium, Germany and New Zealand. The International Polar Year project Principal Investigator is Professor Martin Siegert from the University of Edinburgh. He says, “We are particularly interested in Lake Ellsworth because it’s likely to have been isolated from the surface for hundreds of thousands of years. Radar measurements made previously from aircraft surveys suggest that the lake is connected to others that could drain ice from the West Antarctic Ice sheet to the ocean and contribute to sea-level rise.”

Over 150 lakes have been discovered beneath Antarctica’s ice sheets. The largest and most famous is Lake Vostok on East Antarctica, which is roughly the size of Lake Ontario.
Credit: Nicolle Rager-Fuller / National Science Foundation

Professor Siegert is already planning the lake’s future exploration. He continues, “Around 150 lakes have been discovered beneath Antarctica’s vast ice sheet and so far little is known about them. Getting into the lake is a huge technological challenge but the effort is worth it. These lakes are important for a number of reasons. For example, because water acts as a lubricant to the ice above they may influence how the ice sheet flows. Their potential for unusual life forms could shed new light on evolution of life in harsh conditions; lake-floor sediments could yield vital clues to past climate. They can also help us understand the extraterrestrial environment of Europa (one of the moons of Jupiter).”

Since the 1970s scientists have used radar, seismic and satellite technologies to discover over 150 lakes locked beneath Antarctica’s vast ice sheets. The water beneath the ice remains liquid because of small levels of heat from the Earth’s core coming up through bedrock and from the insulating effect of several kilometres of ice above. The largest and most well known of these is Lake Vostok on East Antarctica. The lake is thought to be roughly the size of Lake Ontario.

Some subglacial lakes may be as old as the ice sheet. The age of the water within the lakes will be as old as the ice which melts into them, which in East Antarctic is around 1 million years.

Related Web Sites

Plumbing in Antarctica
Drilling Vostok with Radar
Probing Arctic Lakes
Living Time Capsules
Swimming a Salty Sea
Return to Europa
What Lies Beneath