While scientists search for water on other planets in our solar system it is interesting to note that we haven’t yet explored all the water on planet Earth. Nearly 400 lakes are trapped under the ice in the Antarctic, many of which might have been isolated from the outside environment for millions of years.

Siegert experienced wind chill of up to -38 °C.

The UK, US and Russia have all been trying to reach these subglacial lakes, in something akin to the space race, as previously reported by Humans Invent.

Last year the British Antarctic Survey had been attempting to reach Lake Ellsworth, 3km below the ice in West Antarctica but were forced to abandon the project on Christmas Day of all days. This is not the end for the expedition however, as Humans Invent found out when we spoke to geoscientist, Martin Siegert, the principle investigator of the project.

The search continues

We first asked Siegart why scientists are so keen to reach one of these hidden lakes in the first place?

Siegert says, “When you speak to microbiologists they get really excited about the prospect of there being life in subglacial lakes, especially as these lakes are potentially extreme environments that have been isolated from the rest of the planet for long periods of time.”

These lakes are potentially extreme environments that have been isolated from the rest of the planet

Siegert continues, “It is a good analogue not only for times past on our planet but also for other places in the solar system where we might also one day want to look for life.”

The plan to drill down to Lake Ellsworth had been 16 years in the making, which makes it all the more devastating that the mission had to be abandoned at the end of last year. So what went wrong?

The main boiler broke down early on and had to be replaced which caused delays but Siegert claims this wasn’t the real issue. He says, “The difficulty was more to do with the drilling procedure rather than the equipment.”

Hot water drill

In their attempt to reach Lake Ellsworth, they were using a hot water drill. This is considered the most environmentally friendly method as it circumvents the need to use harmful chemicals that could potentially contaminate the lake.

The first part of the plan proved successful, drilling down 300m to create a cavity of warm water that could be pumped back up to service the main drill.

Siegert says, “The procedure involved us having to link the main hole to the cavity. The hydrological connection was really needed because the levels of the water in the main borehole and in the reservoir needed to be maintained using a pump between them. If we didn’t do that we would simply be losing a lot of water. It was essential that we made that connection and that is what we failed to do.”

The hot water drill being deployed.

They drilled the main borehole, hoping to connect with the cavity 300m below but were unable to locate it. After 24 hours of searching they were running out of water and fuel. Finally, it got to the point where, even if they did locate the cavity, there wouldn’t be enough fuel required for the drill to bore 3km down to the lake.

Siegert says, “It was frustrating because the experiment frankly nearly worked. If we had linked to the cavity at the time we had hoped to, then, despite all the little technical difficulties we’d previously had, we would have done it.”

Despite having to abandon the project at Christmas, Siegert is still determined to give it another shot and reach the sequestered lake.

Future Funding

He says, “We are going to take a look at the whole experiment, unpick it and work out why we think the cavity wasn’t reached. Based on that assessment we can see what we can do about it in our second attempt.”

Siegert continues, “It might well be that with some relatively modest modifications to the drilling equipment, using different materials or using different types of pumps – really quite simple changes – we will be able to de-risk the incident from reoccurring.”

We are going to take a look at the whole experiment, unpick it and work out why we think the cavity wasn’t reached

The people they need to convince are the Natural Environment Research Council as they are the body that will provide further funding.

Siegert says, “If we can convince the NERC that we have learnt a lot of lessons from this first season and that we are now in a much better position to understand how the equipment works and what we need to do to make it more successful, then I think we are in a very strong position to get second phase funding.”

The story continues.

Images shot by Pete Bucktrout (BAS).

For more information go to www.ellsworth.org.uk


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