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Unlocking Antarctica’s secrets

A Northumbria University lecturer is one of a team of scientists on a mission to explore one of the last unchartered corners of the Earth – a subglacial lake in Antarctica.

Glaciologist Dr John Woodward, together with experts from the British Antarctic Survey and Edinburgh University, will spend five months working in sub zero conditions above Lake Ellsworth - a lake buried beneath 3.4km of ice.

The lake represents an extreme, untouched and unknown habitat.

Dr Woodward said: “Scientists would love to know what is living in these lake environments, and what this might tell us about possible life in extraterrestrial environments such as the frozen moons of Jupiter.”

The £600,000 project has been funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). The British Antarctic Survey will be providing the logistic support necessary to conduct the research in one of the most remote areas of Antarctica.

The researchers will spend much of their time trying to identify the optimal site from which to access subglacial lake Ellsworth. Dr Woodward will undertake a seismic survey. The seismic technique uses high explosives to generate a controlled noise source. Sound waves from the explosive shot travel through the ice and are reflected from the ice-water interface (the surface of the lake). Some waves will travel through the water and will then be reflected from the water-bed interface. The echoes that return to the surface are recorded by a series of highly sensitive microphones that are attached to a computer that will allow the depth of the lake to be mapped.

Once the seismic survey has been carried out, the researchers hope to attract more funding to allow them to use a hot-water drill to bore through the ice and access the lake. A slimline robot will then be lowered into the depths, which will carry sensors to detect life and collect sediment samples.

Dr Woodward, 35, of Witton Gilbert in Co. Durham, is a Senior Lecturer in Geography in the School of Applied Sciences at Northumbria University. Prior to this he worked as a researcher for the British Antarctic Survey.

Dr Woodward admitted: “There is competition to be the first team to explore a subglacial lake. A team from Italy would like to explore Lake Concordia and a team from Russia plans to extract water from Lake Vostok, the largest subglacial lake identified. It is vitally important to identify suitable drill sites, and then to plan to conduct the access experiments in an environmentally friendly way so as not to risk contaminating such pristine and isolated environments’’

More than 150 subglacial lakes have been identified in Antarctica, cut off from the outside world by thick caps of ice for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years. Any life forms will have had to adapt to complete darkness, very few nutrients, crushing water pressures and isolation from the atmosphere.

Katrina Alnikizil | alfa
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