Lake Ellsworth
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Lake Ellsworth, Antarctica

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Map: Lake Ellsworth, Antarctica

In December of 2012 the scientific world shared in the disappointment when the British expedition to investigate sub-glacial Lake Ellsworth was called off due to technical difficulties. The UK's Natural Environment Research Council authorized the expedition, which was being overseen by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research from the International Council for Science. Sixteen years of planning had been undertaken in preparation for the effort to drill through the ice to the lake far below. Although scientific expeditions originating in three areas of the world were attempting to reach lakes deep under the Antarctic ice, the friendly rivalry was expected to provide scientists the world over with valuable knowledge.

Questions to be answered include the possible existence of microbial life-forms, their origins, and how they exist in this frigid, sunless environment. Russia has been attempting to reach Lake Vostok, a huge water body the size of Lake Ontario. The United States is aiming for Lake Whillans, the smallest of the three and the closest to the surface. Surface measurements using radar show Lake Ellsworth to be about 7400 acres in size and nearly 500 feet deep. The fact that the lake's surface lies under nearly 10,000 feet of ice presents major technical drilling issues for the British team.

Sub-glacial lakes such as Lake Ellsworth are of great interest to the scientific community: how did these lakes come into existence so far under the Antarctic ice? Lake Ellsworth's surface is 4593 feet below sea level and has existed in liquid form for at least half a million years. It is suspected that the immense pressure of the ice above causes temperature increases sufficient to melt the ice, while the same pressure results in the water remaining liquid to temperatures far below the usual freezing point. Geothermal activity may also increase the temperature.

Some of Antarctica's nearly 400 known lakes appear to have some type of water flow between them. Sediment cores from the bottom of the lakes may give valuable data on past climate cycles. If any life exists in this extremely cold and dark environment, it will help science understand what types of life-forms might be found in the subsurface lakes of planetary moons such as Europa. The necessary new techniques and tools needed to maintain a clean working environment to avoid contaminating the pristine lakes and successfully retrieve samples under harsh conditions lend themselves to space exploratory techniques. Even the temporary setback experienced by the British team in accessing Lake Ellsworth is not considered a total loss due to advances made in equipment and techniques for exploration. It is hoped any knowledge gained from the lake explorations will enlighten scientists as to the past history of climate change and lead to better predictive measures for the future.

The British team working on reaching Lake Ellsworth had invented the technology necessary to drill through the ice using a hot water drill. This same type of system is now in use by the United States team at Lake Whillans. Russia used diesel drills to penetrate all but the last few feet of ice to reach Lake Vostok, then switched to hot-water drilling to penetrate the liquid lake. Because the Russian team used kerosene and antifreeze to keep the bore hole open for nearly 30 years while they attempted to reach the lake, there was concern that the mixture would introduce a foreign pollutant into the lake, making sampling less trustworthy.

Russia announced they had broken through to Lake Vostok's surface in February of 2012 as a last push before weather conditions forced their departure. No sampling of the water was performed except for the ice that formed on their drill; no microbial life was found in that ice. Actual water sampling is expected to take place in 2013. Scientists report that ice forming often excludes everything but pure water, so that these results cannot be relied upon until further sampling is completed in open waters below.

The British team terminated their exploration of Lake Ellsworth in December of 2012 due to drilling difficulties. Two bore-holes nearly a thousand feet deep were expected to intersect in order to provide a system of accessing a source for water to be used in the hot-water drilling. The holes did not line up, and the effort to connect the two used too much of the stored fuel to continue to the lake's surface this year. The British team expects it to be several years before they can return with the right equipment and funding to complete the task they were so close to finishing.

The team's disappointment in failing to reach Lake Ellsworth is tempered only by the fact that both the United States team and the Russian team expect to reach the surface of their respective targets this year and will provide valuable data to all of the scientific community. The temperatures in Antarctica preclude any type of long-term scientific exploration except for the short two-month summer season of December and January. There was serious concern in February of 2012 when the Russian team had not returned to their base and hadn't been heard from for five days. It was feared that bad weather conditions had trapped them in the inhospitable environment with little hope of rescue. So, although the Russian team reached Lake Vostok, they could not remain to do any sampling, and headed for home base just as inhospitable weather conditions were setting in.

Although Lake Ellsworth isn't on any travel itinerary, the knowledge to be gained about earth's most extreme and remote locations is a priceless addition to natural science knowledge. This knowledge will translate into new processes and abilities, both in the exploration of space and in understanding our environment. We will be waiting with bated breath to hear what Antarctica's sub-glacial lakes such as Lake Ellsworth have to tell us.

*Statistics listed are approximations based on above-surface instrument soundings.

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