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Search for ancient life in frozen continent heats up

Monday, September 24, 2012 - 02:57

Sept. 24 - A three-way race to find life in subglacial lakes deep beneath Antarctica is heating up. After a similar Russian expedition earlier this year, A British-based team of scientists is preparing to begin its own ambitious mission, which it hopes will answer questions about the region's last ice melt. Jim Drury reports.

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Capable of boring through three kilometres of ice, this drill could help scientists answer two vital questions - do microbial life forms exist in subglacial lakes, and when did the west Antarctic ice sheet last melt? This team from the British Antarctic Survey and the National Oceanography Centre is being briefed ahead of their mission which begins next month. Andy Tait tells says that in order to drill that deep, they'll have to create 90,000 litres of water for the drill by shovelling snow into a 1.5 megawatt boiler. UPSOT: TAIT SAYING: "So, an awful lot of snow to chuck into these." That snow will be turned into hot water used to melt the ice as the drill descends, according to programme manager Chris Hill. SOUNDBITE (English) CHRIS HILL, PROGRAMME MANAGER OF BAS MISSION, SAYING: "You heat a large body of water, then you pump it up at high pressure through a bank of pumps. Then you squirt it out a very long hose..... drilling through 3.2 kilometres of ice means that the hose has to be huge, which means an enormous winch to control the weight of the hose, the boiler required to heat that amount of water in that amount of time is one and a half megawatts of power." The operation will begin in early December, by which time the team will be in place above Lake Ellsworth. The drilling will continue non-stop for 100 hours. With the borehole complete, a titanium water-sampling probe will be lowered down. The team will then have 24 hours to sample the lake before it re-freezes. Principal investigator Martin Siegert is optimistic about what they'll find. SOUNDBITE (English) MARTIN SIEGERT, PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR FOR THE BAS MISSION, SAYING: "We expect life to be there. The questions that we think we're going to be able to answer are how is life living there, is it thriving, is it on the edge of existence, what is the concentration of life, are there bits of the lake where there are more life than other parts, and what do the sediments have in the role of that." Teams from Russia and the US are undertaking similar missions in a race to discover life in earth's most remote and extreme environment. In February, the Russian team pierced through 3.7 kilometres of solid ice to Lake Vostok, but samples won't be taken until next year. The British team hopes to find ancient seashells amid the Ellsworth seafloor sediment that could help them pinpoint the date of the last west Antarctic ice sheet melt, and provide clues about future global sea level rises. SOUNDBITE (English) MARTIN SIEGERT, PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR FOR THE BAS MISSION, SAYING: "To really understand that risk you have to work out the last time the west Antarctic ice sheet disappeared, and whenever that was we'd look at the environmental conditions which led to its decay and work out how close we are to those environmental conditions today, and in so doing we can work out the risk of change ahead of us." Sub-glacial lakes like Ellsworth are formed by heat from the Earth melting the bottom of the surface ice. Experts say the West Antarctic ice sheet contains enough ice to raise world sea levels by five metres if it ever broke up - a threat to low-lying areas from Bangladesh to Florida.

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Search for ancient life in frozen continent heats up

Monday, September 24, 2012 - 02:57