There are hundreds of subglacial lakes buried deep beneath the Antarctic ice, each one completely isolated from the rest of the world for hundreds of thousands of years. And now, scientists are preparing to find out just what's down there.
These subglacial lakes represent one of the true frontiers of scientific exploration. The Russian polymath Peter Kropotkin first proposed the possible existence of vast lakes beneath miles beneath the surface of the Antarctic ice sheets in the late 19th century. Kropotkin hypothesized that the tremendous pressure of all that ice could increase temperatures at the bottom, allowing liquid water to form and remain relatively stable.
Kropotkin wasn't quite right in the details, but his basic idea would be proved correct in the late 20th century, as scientists discovered evidence of these lakes deep underground throughout Antarctica. The largest, Lake Vostok, is similar in size to Lake Ontario, except Vostok has three times the volume of that Great Lake. We now know that the lakes remain liquid thanks to a combination of geothermal venting providing warmth and the pressure of the ice sheets working to lower the melting point.
The lakes are a remarkable find, but they're so completely inaccessible that we've never been able to study them directly. That's about to change, as a British engineering team is preparing to transport nearly 80 tons of equipment to Antarctica in the hopes of drilling down to Lake Ellsworth in 2012.
This particular lake, which is about six miles long and thirty feet deep, has been chosen because it's one of the easiest subglacial lakes to access - relatively speaking, of course - and scientists believe it's one of the best candidates to harbor unique forms of microbial life that have evolved in the half a million years of isolation and darkness.
Team member Dr. David Pearce, who is the science coordinator at the British Antarctic Survey, explains the potential benefits of the research:
"Finding life in a lake that could have been isolated from the rest of the biosphere for up to half a million years will tell us so much about the potential origin of and constraints for life on Earth, and may provide clues to the evolution of life on other extraterrestrial environments. If we find nothing this will be even more significant because it will define limits at which life can no longer exist on the planet."
Here's how the team will reach the lake, according to a press release from the Lake Ellsworth program:
In October 2012 a team of 10 scientists and engineers will use state of the art hot-water drilling technology to make a three kilometre bore hole through the ice. They will then lower a titanium probe to measure and sample the water followed by a corer to extract sediment from the lake. Lake Ellsworth is likely to be the first of Antarctica's 387 known subglacial lakes to be measured and sampled directly through the design and manufacture of space-industry standard 'clean technology'.
This is hopefully only the beginning of research into this amazing world. A Russian team is also prepping their own exploration of Lake Vostok. The search for exotic lifeforms will be a big part of the Lake Ellsworth project, although the research should also help assess the long-term stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. We still don't know just how many lakes are buried beneath the ice - the high-end estimates suggest as many as 387 are buried under there, possibly connected by an even larger network of subglacial rivers.