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Scientists seek life far below Antarctica

  • Article by: ALEX MORALES
  • Bloomberg News
  • December 11, 2012 - 7:07 PM

LONDON - British scientists plan to start drilling in Antarctica on Wednesday in their quest to discover whether life exists in a lake that's been isolated for hundreds of thousands of years 2 miles below the ice.

The researchers will use a drill that pumps hot water at high pressure to bore through the ice. After firing the boiler's burners on Tuesday, they'll begin test drills before drilling down to the lake by Sunday, said Chris Hill, program manager at the British Antarctic Survey for the project at Lake Ellsworth, near the center of the West Antarctic ice sheet.

"Since that boiler fired up, the mood's been pretty good," Hill said in a satellite phone interview from the drilling site. "We have to wait on this like expectant fathers."

The $13 million project is the culmination of 16 years of planning. Researchers aim to recover water and sediment samples from the lake to determine whether life exists there and shed clues on the past climate of Antarctica.

"The most likely organisms to be found will be bacterial -- they're everywhere," David Pearce, a microbiologist with the project, said in an interview in October, shortly before heading to the southern continent to begin preparations. "If there's nothing there, that will tell us the limits for the existence of life on Earth."

After testing the drill works, the researchers plan to bore down about 980 feet where they'll create a water-filled cavity to help balance the water pressure between the lake and the borehole. Then they plan to make a separate hole from the top, through the cavity and down to the lake.

Once the drill is removed, Hill said "the clock starts ticking" and the researchers have just 24 to 30 hours to recover samples before the hole refreezes and becomes too narrow to safely lower instruments.

First they'll lower a sterile ultraviolet lamp down to irradiate any life around the edges of the hole, Hill said in a briefing in October. Then they'll send down a probe with 24 canisters to collect water samples from different depths.

Finally, a sediment corer will be dropped down to recover a length of sediment from the lake bed. By analyzing a column of sediment, scientists can tell whether the ice sheet has retreated in the past, by the presence or absence of fossilized marine organisms.

© 2014 Star Tribune