Research Intelligence - For answers, they may need some time

The head of a study of a subglacial Antarctic lake tells Elizabeth Gibney of the need for the long view

October 18, 2012

Credit: Neil Ross/School Of Geosciences, University Of Edinburgh
Is this the place? Lake Ellsworth lies under 3km of ice. The expedition to it has been years in the making and has called on the UK's 'amazing breadth of science talent'

Martin Siegert spent much of last month getting very cold and very wet as he practised abseiling, learned how to survive a whiteout and honed his first-aid skills. Although he did most of this in the Peak District, he will be applying the skills in a very different environment.

"If you fall down a crevasse, you have to be able to abseil. I almost certainly won't need it, but if you're in Antarctica, you don't want to be in a crevasse and only just learning then," he said.

This month the professor of geosciences at the University of Bristol is heading to western Antarctica for an expedition to the subglacial Lake Ellsworth. The project has been 10 years in the making, and it could be achieved only by employing the "amazing breadth of science talent" the UK has, he said.

The team he is leading will travel more than 16,000km to the site before drilling through ice 3km thick to reach the lake. They will take samples of water and sediment from an environment that has been isolated from the rest of the world for hundreds of thousands of years.

The water samples will reveal whether life can exist in such an extreme environment; the sediment will indicate the age of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. "It's pure curiosity-driven work. Is there life in extreme environments? We don't know at the moment," Professor Siegert said.

The team - which comprises four scientists, an expedition leader, a camp leader, five engineers and a photographer - has planned meticulously. Each member has previous experience with either the British Antarctic Survey or the National Oceanography Centre, and some 70,000 tonnes of equipment is already in place.

In December, after 100 hours of hot-water drilling, the team will send a probe down a 36cm hole and take samples in the 24-hour window before the conduit through the ice to the lake freezes shut.

So fresh and so clean

Working conditions will be harsh, with the temperature about -25 degsC and the wind blowing at 25 knots. Not only that, all the equipment must be sterilised to avoid contaminating the lake. These demands make carrying out the precision experiment extremely challenging, Professor Siegert said.

The expedition requirements for planning, contingency and payload control are comparable to that of a space mission, albeit with funding that is several orders of magnitude smaller, he added. "It's like sending a rover to Mars. The science is pretty simple, all the equipment has probably been used in different places before, but maybe not in this way, and not in this environment."

Part of the difficulty stems from the site's remoteness from civilisation: the British Antarctic Survey's nearest permanent outpost, Rothera Station, is several hundred miles from camp. The team has had to plan for every possible contingency.

"There's bound to be something that comes up. For example, if the mouse we're using on the computer fails, who's got the spare mouse? For most high-level items we have replacements, but there are some things you can only have one of," Professor Siegert said.

Lake Ellsworth is not the only subglacial lake in Antarctica, and a separate Russian team has been working on a similar experiment at Lake Vostok. But Professor Siegert said it was "lazy" to think that there was a race between his team and the Russians, who succeeded in drilling down to Lake Vostok in February.

The British team's technique - using hot water to create a refreezable hole rather than drilling a permanent borehole filled with antifreeze, as the Russians did - means that its results are likely to be free of contaminants, he said.

"Everything in science is competition. But it's not getting into the lake that's important; it's the data we get."

Nonetheless, competition in Antarctic science is hotting up. Geopolitically, a presence on the continent is seen as something that every established international power should have, and South Korea, India and China are all looking to increase their scientific footprints in Antarctica "hugely" over the next 10 to 20 years, Professor Siegert said.

At the same time, "certain nations" are reviewing their own efforts in Antarctica. In the UK, for example, this might take the form of judging the relative values of Arctic and Antarctic science. "But scientifically, there are very good reasons why we might want to do more Antarctic research. So there is a balance to be struck."

Uncertain future

Professor Siegert tactfully avoided noting that the Lake Ellsworth expedition is taking place at a time when the British Antarctic Survey itself is under threat and rumours abound that cuts are on the horizon.

The survey's parent body, the Natural Environment Research Council, has proposed merging the British Antarctic Survey with the National Oceanography Centre to create a Centre for Marine and Polar Science.

Press reports suggest that Nerc aims to save £13 million by doing this, although the research council is keen to point out that saving money is only part of the rationale behind the proposal.

The British Antarctic Survey fared relatively well in the 2010 spending review. Nerc chose to hold its budget at £42 million a year until 2015, but inflation is taking a big bite. Rising external costs, particularly for the marine gas oil that powers its ships, have the potential to "cause problems for BAS in maintaining the logistics it depends on in order to deliver its science", the research council said.

A month-long consultation on the merger plans closed on 12 October. The morale of survey staff is said to be low. Its director, Nick Owens, left earlier this year after the plans were announced.

The potential triumph of the Lake Ellsworth team is due in December, just as Nerc's governing council makes a decision on the merger.

Professor Siegert believes that the expedition's results are likely to raise more questions than they answer. If no life is found, Lake Ellsworth will be the first place with an abundance of water but no life. If life is present, there will be questions about its form and habitat.

"If the science after all of that is compelling, then we might well put another proposal in to go back to this lake or another," he said.

Look to the long term

The expedition should also serve as a reminder of the necessity and value of long-term science projects, he added. Assembling the skills and budget to carry out such an experiment took years of planning and personal dedication. Professor Siegert routinely advises early career scientists to exploit their ability to plan ambitious long-term projects - something that the UK research environment does not necessarily encourage, he said.

"Higher education is full of short-termism. With surveys, the REF (research excellence framework) ... it's all about the next league table and the next three or four years. But to do big science, you need long-term planning."

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