Researchers seek life 2 miles under Antarctic ice

LONDON — British researchers are preparing to drill through 2 miles of Antarctic ice to search for life in samples from a lake that’s been isolated from the outside world for hundreds of thousands of years.

A year after delivering 70 tons of equipment to the site of Lake Ellsworth, a body of fresh water between the West Antarctic ice sheet and the bedrock under the southern continent, scientists next month will deliver another 26 tons of gear, the British Antarctic Survey said Friday. In December they plan to drill for 100 hours to reach the lake.

The British effort follows a Russian project that in February drilled to Lake Vostok, more than 3.7 kilometers under the Antarctic ice. The teams are searching for signs of life in water that remains liquid due to a combination of the pressure of thousands of yards of ice and geothermal heat from below.

“For years we have speculated that new forms of microbial life could have evolved in the unique habitats of Antarctica’s sub-glacial lakes,” said John Parnell, a professor of geology at the University of Aberdeen. “If life can withstand even the deepest, darkest and most isolated conditions for more than a million years, then it has the ability to exist anywhere — and by that I mean not just on Earth.”

The British team will employ a drilling technique using hot water to create the borehole 14 inches wide. After 100 hours of drilling, the scientists will have just a day to recover samples before the borehole refreezes, sealing the lake again.

“We are standing at the threshold of making new discoveries about a part of our planet that has never been explored in this way,” said Martin Siegert, the project’s principle investigator and a researcher at the University of Bristol. “Finding life in a lake that could have been isolated for up to half a million years is an exciting prospect.”

To ensure the samples aren’t contaminated by material from the surface, they’ll be collected using equipment that meets the same standards as equipment designed for space exploration.

A Russian team on Feb. 5 penetrated more than 3.7 kilometers of ice to reach the waters of Lake Vostok, another body of water underneath Antarctica, where they collected samples of “fresh frozen” water, according to the country’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute.

Lakes exist deep below the Antarctic surface because the pressure exerted by thousands of yards of ice drives down the freezing point of water. Lake Ellsworth is one of 387 known subglacial Antarctic lakes.

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