A team of four British engineers recently returned from a 10-day trip to a desolate, windswept plain in Antarctica, setting the stage for a project that could uncover previously unknown life that has been cut off from the world for millennia.
Scientists with the British Antarctic Survey are seeking to drill through the continent's thick covering of ice to a giant, hidden lake, cut off since before modern humans first evolved, which may house life forms invisible to human eyes. They could be unlike anything scientists have seen before.
"We expect to find microorganisms," said Martin Siegert, the principal investigator on the project, "because there's water and where there's water on planet Earth, there's life."
The lake, Lake Ellsworth, is 7 miles (12 kilometers) long, a mile (3 km) wide, and 500 feet (150 meters) deep. Buried beneath nearly 2 miles (3 km) of ice, the lake has likely been cut off from any outside influence for several hundred thousand years, said Siegert, a glaciologist and professor at the University of Edinburgh.
Any microbes living in the lake may have evolved and adapted in strange ways, since they live in total darkness, and have likely been left to their own evolutionary devices for thousands of years. If they are anything like Antarctica's only native wildlife, they could be strange indeed.
The window to work in Antarctica is short, limited to the comparatively balmy months of austral summer, from November to late January. This season, engineers brought more than 70 tons of equipment to the remote Lake Ellsworth site, about an hour's flight from the closest research station, so that all will be ready to begin drilling at the start of the next season, in November of this year.
When the first half of the team arrived, the site was completely empty, said Andy Tait, an engineer and the designer of the drill that will be used to reach the lake below.
"There was some fuel that had been buried a year before, but there was nothing to be seen on the surface at all," Tait told OurAmazingPlanet. "Within an hour and a half, the plane took off again, leaving us there in this pristine white, rather unforgiving landscape."
Tait and an assistant were joined three days later by two more engineers, who hauled the many tons of equipment overland by tractor-train on an arduous three-day trek from the closest research station. [Extreme Living: Scientists at the End of the Earth]
Within 12 hours of their arrival, the team built up large mounds of snow, to serve as natural lifts for the equipment containers during the winter. Blowing snow quickly buries anything not raised above the surface of the ice sheet.
For the remainder of the trip, the team spent their days winterizing equipment to survive the bitter months of endless darkness ahead, when temperatures plunge to minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 50 degrees Celsius), and high winds rip across the vast ice sheet.
The team's prize tool is its hot-water drill, likely the largest ever built — the hose on the drill is 2.2 miles (3.5 k) long.
Lake Ellsworth is one of 387 lakes scientists have discovered secreted beneath the Antarctic ice.
Water, water everywhere
"My opinion is there are several hundred more we haven't discovered yet," Siegert said.
And although the British team is on track to be the first to sample one of these lakes with a hot-water drill, a Russian team has been drilling into Lake Vostok in Eastern Antarctica for several years. Lake Vostok, about the size of Lake Ontario, is the largest lake in Antarctica, and it's possible the Russian team may breach its surface by the end of January.
The team was poised to reach the lake before the close of the 2011 field season, but came up somewhere between 16 feet (5 m) and 65 feet (20 m) short, according to various news reports.
In a Jan. 12 press release from Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, the Vostok team said drilling began this season on Jan. 2, progressed by 5.7 feet (1.75 meters) a day, and was halted on Jan. 12. It's not clear if work is over for the season, or if the halt is temporary.
Siegert said that it's not particularly important who samples ancient Antarctic lake water first.
"It's not a race for penetrating a glacial lake," he said. "We're not adventurers. We're doing science. There are questions we're asking and trying to answer."
The British team will return to Lake Ellsworth in November 2012, and will drill down to the lake over the course of three days. Once the drill pierces the ice all the way through, "we'll get the samples back in 24 hours," Siegert said. "We'll get a pretty good understanding straight away whether there's life in the lake."
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Reach Andrea Mustain at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @AndreaMustain. Follow OurAmazingPlanet for the latest in Earth science and exploration news on Twitter @OAPlanet and on Facebook.