Buried Antarctic Lake Ready To Be Unearthed

By Amir Khan on September 10, 2012 11:05 AM EDT

Antarctica
Antarctica, a frozen desert. (Photo: NASA)

A buried Antarctic lake is ready to be unearthed, according to British scientists.  Researchers from the University of Bristol will undertake a mission 16-years in the making this October when they travel to Lake Ellsworth to take ice samples.

The buried Antarctic lake has been cut off from the world for more than 1 million years, and the ice samples could potentially reveal new organisms.

The lake is 7 miles long, a mile wide and 500 feet deep and lies hidden underneath nearly 2 miles of ice. Researchers will use a special hot water drill to get through, but have to act quickly. After 24 hours, the hole will freeze over again.

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But luckily, the researchers have enough fuel for two tries.

"Some snags will happen, so you have to build in redundancy," Martin Siegert, the lead investigator for the project, said, according to OurAmazingPlanet.

It will take researchers three days of drilling to reach the surface of the lake, at which point they will try to fill 24 small canisters, each able to hold 3.3 ounces of water, with lake water and sediment. Researchers have attached cameras to the drill and will be watching live as the action unfolds.

"We're really looking forward to getting images back," Siegert said.

If there are any organisms in the lake, researchers will know quickly. Though the capsules won't be opened until they are in a sterile room, researchers will be able to analyze the water filter right away.

"So when the probe comes to the surface, we won't be able to analyze the water, but we will be able to analyze the filter immediately," Siegert told OurAmazingPlanet. "We will look at it under a microscope within a few hours. So the question, 'Is there life in the lake?,' we will have an answer very quickly."

The expedition is similar the one going on at the nearby Lake Vostok, which began more than a decade ago.

The Lake Vostak drilling began in 1998, with an initial drilling of the 15,695 square kilometer (6,060 square mile) lake, similar in size to Lake Ontario. The team reached 3,596 meters (11,800 feet) quickly, but stopped over concerns of contamination of the never-before-touched lake water. In order to ensure this didn't happen, scientists agreed to drill until they found free water, at which point they would adjust the pressure on the drill to cause the lake water to rise through the hole due to the pressure from below. From there the water would freeze on the surface, and they could sample it without contaminating Lake Vostok.

Many are not convinced that Russia's attempt at shielding the lake from contamination will work. The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based group focused on environmental issues on the Antarctic continent told Discovery News that the Russian's use of kerosene to drill and keep the hole open will contaminate the lake, and that they should try other methods, such as hot-water drilling. The scientists dismiss this idea, saying hot-water drilling requires more power than they can generate.

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