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It appears that the formidable ice sheets of the Antarctic have gotten the best of a UK research team attempting to bore through them to reach the subglacial Lake Ellsworth. The $3 million project to drill through 1.8 miles of ice to get to the lake was funded by the National Environment Research Council which comprises of the British Antarctic Survey, the National Oceonography Centre, and nine UK universities. The field team, led by principal investigator Michael Siegert of the University of Bristol, had to stop drilling after running into an unexpected glitch and the team was forced to call off the project for the season.

“Sixteen years ago, we hypothesized that deep-water subglacial lakes are viable habitats for life and contain important records of ice and climate history,” says Seigert on why they attempted this mission in the first place. The plan was to drill two boreholes and create a cavity at about 980 feet down to connect them. The cavity and the secondary borehole were to be used to recirculate drilling water back to the surface and to equalized the pressure of the lake once it was penetrated.

The team was able to drill the first borehole down to a depth of 980 feet. They then left hot water at that depth to create a cavity meant to connect the two boreholes. The team drilled the second, main borehole to a depth of 980 feet, about 7 feet away from the first. This second borehole should have immediately connected to the first through the cavity but for reasons yet to be determined, it did not, even after the team tried for 20 hours. During this unsuccessful attempt, precious hot water was lost as it seeped into the porous surface layer of ice. The team tried to replenish it by digging and melting more snow, but they weren’t able to keep up. Eventually, the fuel stocks were depleted to the point that the team had to stop and discontinue the project for the season.

Before starting to plan a return, the team will have to get their equipment back to the UK to be serviced which is likely to take a couple of seasons in itself. After they’re back in the UK, they will develop a report on what went wrong and what they’ve learned on this mission. “Once back in the UK, I will gather our consortium to seek way in which our research efforts may continue. I remain confident that we will unlock the secrets of Lake Ellsworth in coming seasons,” says Siegert. Though even he admits that they won’t be able to send a team out to the lake for another three to five years at a minimum. Meanwhile, it is possible that other nations may beat the UK to the punch and send teams out to investigate subglacial lakes in the Antarctic first.

+ British Antarctic Survey

+ Lake Ellsworth Blog

Via BBC News