What lies beneath? Antarctic mission to find life isolated deep under the ice

Extraordinary journey may reveal unknown life forms cut off from outside world – and pave a way to Jupiter

Twelve British scientists are about to embark on a gruelling expedition to the Antarctic, sleeping and living packed together in small tents for months on end, testing their endurance of the conditions – and one another – in a quest to uncover a lost world frozen beneath the ice for hundreds of thousands of years.

Their search for microbial lifeforms will take them to the darkest depths of an Antarctic lake that has been buried under three kilometres of ice.

The British team will later this year start to drill through the thick ice sheet of West Antarctica to retrieve samples of water and mud from Lake Ellsworth, one of about 150 subglacial lakes in the frozen continent.

The pioneering expedition, which is led by the British Antarctic Survey and is being closely monitored by Nasa as a template for a future space mission to an ice-bound moon of Jupiter, is one of the most ambitious attempts ever to find “extremophile” microbes living in the harshest conditions.

Scientists believe that if life does exist in the lake, it has been isolated for up to half a million years. Although no sunlight has ever penetrated the lake during this time, microbes could be living off other sources of chemical energy.

Lake Ellsworth exists because geothermal heat from the ground melts the underside of the ice sheet, leading to liquid water gathering in a subglacial valley the size of Lake Windermere, hermetically sealed from the atmosphere by the ice sheet sitting on top of it.

Planning the £8m mission has been a logistical and engineering nightmare, involving the transport of 100 tonnes of equipment to one of the remotest places on the planet where summer temperatures hover around -25C.

“This is an incredibly exciting and  terrifying time for us. There is nothing small about what we are doing, the scale is phenomenal,” said Chris Hill, the mission’s programme manager.

“This time last year a small ‘advance party’ transported nearly 70 tonnes of equipment 16,000km from the UK to the drilling site. One year later, we will ship another 26 tonnes of equipment so we can complete stage two of this challenging field mission,” Mr Hill told the British Science Festival in Aberdeen. “We set foot on the ice again in October and hope to bring samples to the surface in December 2012.”

The team of 12 men consists of four scientists, five engineers, a programme manager, a camp manger (who does the cooking) and a cameraman to record everything for the media.

They will sleep in three four-man tents specially designed as “weather havens”. There will also be a living room tent for eating and cooking and an “office tent” at the drilling site.

Everything taken to the site will be shipped out again, even the human waste, to keep the area pristine. The men will have books, magazines, a DVD player and internet access to entertainment them for the two a half months of the exploration.

“Anyone with strength enough to go cross-country skiing will be able to do so, but to be honest most people at the end of the day are so exhausted they just want to eat and go to bed,” said Hill.

The team has been hand-picked and psychologically matched to make sure they get on with one another, but small arguments are almost inevitable, Mr Hill said. “Even the most good-natured person will throw their toys out of the pram because the conditions are so tough, But I feel we have a good mix of men and they should get along.”

The equipment is transported by sea and cargo plane, with the final leg of the journey over the ice made by a train of heavy snow tractors. Engineers are on schedule to begin erecting the drilling rig by the end of November and hope to drill down through the ice in the second week of December.

The water and mud samples will be brought to the surface and provisionally analysed on site, with the first scientific results coming just before Christmas, said Professor Martin Siegert of Bristol Univeristy, the mission’s principal investigator.

“If there is life in the lake we will know pretty much immediately and we will tell people about it. For the first time we are standing at the threshold of making new discoveries about a part of our planet that has never been explored in this way,” Professor Siegert said.

“Finding life in a lake that could have been isolated for up to half a million years is an exciting prospect.”

The drill consists of a high-pressure jet of water heated to 100C so that it melts its way through the ice. Once the drilling begins, the engineers cannot stop until the mission is complete as the empty borehole will freeze over after 24 hours, Professor Siegert said.

Enormous efforts have gone into sterilising the drilling equipment to prevent microbial contamination of the lake from the surface. Even the drilling water used in the high-pressure jet will be filtered to pharmaceutical standards before it is injected into the borehole, he said.

Once the drill has reached the lake, it will be pulled back up through the borehole to allow the scientific instruments to be lowered into the water. The first will consist of a five-metre long probe for sampling the lake, while the second instrument is a sediment corer for taking mud samples from the lake floor.

“The simple question we will be posing is: could life adapt to these extreme environments. It is only microbes that would have any chance of living in these extreme conditions,” said Professor John Purnell of Aberdeen University. “Finding evidence of such compounds would show us that if life can withstand even the deepest, darkest and most isolated conditions for more than a million years, then it has the ability to exist anywhere – and by that I mean not just on Earth.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£26000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is Europe's indust...

Recruitment Genius: Engineering Technician

£17020 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Aerospace company is looki...

Recruitment Genius: Company Bookkeeper

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Bookkeeper is required to joi...

Recruitment Genius: Site Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Due to growth this company is seeking two Site...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen