17 Jan 2012

Ice drilling site being set up

6:08 pm on 17 January 2012

British scientists have set up a drilling site on the Antarctic ice more than 3km above Lake Ellsworth, a sub-glacial lake, where they hope to obtain water samplescontaining new forms of life.

Their aim is to search for signs of life in the waters and to extract sediments from the lake floor to better understand the past climate.

The BBC's science reporter says it is is one of the most challenging British scientific projects for years.

The task is so complex that preparations have had to be spread over two Antarctic summer seasons.

In the first phase a "tractor train" has now hauled nearly 70 tonnes of equipment from an ice runway at Union Glacier through the Ellsworth mountains to the lake site.

The journey of about 250km took three days. A four-man team has now stored the equipment and "winterised" it to cope with the incredibly low temperatures to come.

Lake Ellsworth is one of more than 400 sub-glacial lakes in Antarctica and was chosen for the drilling operation because of its relative accessibility.

The area around the lake is notorious for its deep cold and constant winds.

High cleanliness standards

The delivery of equipment is just one part of the preparations for the drilling and sampling operation.

Key components are still being manufactured and tested before they can be shipped south.

Most challenging is the complex sampling probe which has been designed to cope with a combination of extremely high pressures and extremely low temperatures.

It must also be assembled and delivered in conditions of the highest possible sterility.

For the first time in Antarctic exploration, an investigation is being planned with cleanliness standards higher than those of most surgeries, to eliminate all possibility of contamination signs of biology in the lake waters.