UK races to find life under ice

September 17, 2004

Steve Farrar British scientists are to send a robot probe to one of the last unexplored corners of the Earth - a subglacial lake buried beneath 3.4km of Antarctic ice.

The interdisciplinary consortium of ten universities and institutions, including leading members of the Beagle 2 Mars probe group, aims to be the first to search for life in such an untouched extreme habitat.

It also wants to gain insights into past climate fluctuations in a key part of the world for monitoring the effects of global change.

Martin Siegert, professor of physical geography at Bristol University and a leading figure in the £2 million project, said the team hoped to bore into Lake Ellsworth in West Antarctica by 2009.

While he admitted "we simply do not know what is down there", he expected the project to produce major findings and to excite public interest.

The British expedition is expected to take place before an Italian proposal to explore the less-accessible Lake Concordia and should provide more significant scientific data than Russian plans to extract water from Lake Vostok, the largest such body yet identified.

"The whole situation is certainly competitive - there is huge kudos associated with being the first team to do serious work in a subglacial lake," Professor Siegert said.

Some 145 subglacial lakes have been identified in Antarctica, cut off from the outside world by thick caps of ice for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years.

Each one encapsulates a unique environment where any life forms will have had to adapt to complete darkness, scant nutrient levels, crushing water pressures and isolation from the atmosphere.

The prospect of organisms surviving in such inhospitable conditions has attracted the interest of astrobiologists, who are keen to develop the technology needed to search for life on other planets.

Mark Sims, Beagle 2 mission manager and research fellow at Leicester University's Space Research Centre, said he hoped that biochip technology being developed with colleagues at Cranfield University would detect life in Lake Ellsworth.

"This is an ambitious and exciting interdisciplinary project that, like Beagle 2 , has the potential to encourage children to look to science and technology for a career," Dr Sims said.

Lake Ellsworth has been selected for its small size, relative accessibility, low altitude and because it is unconnected to any other lake, so the impact of any pollution is minimised.

The scientists hope to gain research council funding for the first stage of the project next year.

A seismic survey of the lake will be carried out before the lake is entered.

A hot-water drill will be used to bore through the ice and the 1m-long slimline robot will then be lowered into the depths.

This will carry sensors to detect life and determine conditions within the lake and devices to collect sediment samples, as well as lights and cameras.

John Priscu, professor of ecology at Montana State University in the US and a leading subglacial lake expert, described the Lake Ellsworth proposal as "fantastic" and said such work on smaller lakes was vital before an attempt to enter Lake Vostok could be made.

"If successful, the Ellsworth work will be the first to gather scientific data on possible life in a subglacial lake and the record of climate change locked in lake-bed sediments," he said.

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