Lake Ellsworth Drilling Project On Freeze For At Least Another Few Months

By Nick Venable | 8 years ago

Lake Ellsworth drilling site, Antarctica

I can’t imagine opening anything that hasn’t been opened for 500,000 years and saying something besides, “Ew.” I also can’t imagine drilling through the surface of the coldest, least explored area of the planet. So I guess we’re all in agreement on why I have absolutely nothing to do with the background of this story.

The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) team, set on drilling through two miles of Antarctic ice to reach Lake Ellsworth, have postponed their $13 million project for an undetermined amount of time. Last week, there was a problem with an electrical component in the main boiler system, and after one failed attempt, the team did replace the part with a working one. Only the secondary boiler was working over time and used up more fuel than planned. It seems to me, when reading stories about this, that the writers wrote with a smug tone, as in, “Well of course you can’t drill through Antarctica, silly goose!” Maybe not. It’s one of the most ambitious and possibly informative explorations in quite some time, as whatever life thrives in the lake could give unlock mysteries about the Earth at that time, as well as conditions beneath the surfaces of Earth-like planets and moons.

The frozen towel was thrown in after two 300m borehole cavities, located 2m apart, failed to connect together at that depth, for reasons as yet unknown. The borehole system would have been used to circulate water from the lake up to the surface via submersible pump, while the second borehole would keep the pressure balanced. If anyone finds any yellow ice in one of those holes, remember I had nothing to do with this.

All is not lost, however, and it won’t be another 500,000 years before someone tries again. The team must get their gear bundled up for the winter time, so they can go back to Britain and get a handle on the situation. Probably by a fireplace. Project leader Professor Martin Siegert said in a prepared statement:

On Christmas Eve we took the decision to cease our efforts to directly measure and sample Subglacial Lake Ellsworth. Although circumstances have not worked out as we would have wished, I am confident that through the huge efforts of the field team, and our colleagues in the UK, we have done as much as we possibly could have done, and I sincerely thank them all. Sixteen years ago, we hypothesized that deep-water subglacial lakes are viable habitats for life, and contain important records of ice and climate history. For now, these hypotheses remain untested. Once back in the UK I will gather our consortium to seek ways in which our research efforts may continue. I remain confident that we will unlock the secrets of Lake Ellsworth in coming seasons.

With any luck and a whole lotta learning, I’ll be writing about their further attempts later next year. Russian scientists broke through to Lake Vostok, long home to their substation, but no information has come forth from their studies, and some believe the samples may have been compromised by drilling fluids. The U.S. plans to drill to Lake Whillans in January or February, funded by the National Science Foundation.

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