Posted by: sioglac | Dec 12, 2012

Excitement in Antarctica: Lake Ellsworth drilling has started!

Well I wish I had noticed this this morning! The Natural Environment Research Council/British Antarctic Survey team has officially started the drilling process to access Subglacial Lake Ellsworth. This is extremely exciting news for anyone that studies subglacial lakes (like myself) or generally anyone interested in Antarctic science. Today’s news release can be found here, complete with some video. BAS is taking a different approach to drilling than we are: they will spend ~48 hours drilling through the ice to the lake surface, then they have about 24 hours to recover samples before the ice flows back into the hole and closes it. (Please feel free to correct my description as I’m working off memory from a talk back in July).

[An aside: while I appreciate the  pseudo-80s/pseudo-futuristic music with the drill animation, I personally think it would have been a better choice to go with something more epic. Seriously, push play on my music, then mute the drill video and push play. It’s perfect. The sediment corer is right in time with the music. Best thing since Dark Side of the Rainbow.]

So now the obvious question is: wait why is BAS/NERC drilling one lake, WISSARD drilling another, and the Russians drilling a third?! That seems crazy!

Well it is, especially when you think about the sheer size of any project like this, let alone three.

And it isn’t.

More times than not, people (myself very much included) forget how gigantic Antarctica is. The United States is about 4 million square miles in area. Antarctica tops out well above 5 million, making it over 25% bigger than the USA. Drilling a single lake in Antarctica and saying, “We understand this system,” would be like studying Lake Michigan and proclaiming, “We know how the water cycle works from LA to New York now!” Seems a little ridiculous, right? Let’s have a little run down on the three subglacial lake drilling projects to make sense of all this:

  1. Subglacial Lake Ellsworth: Since we were talking about it, SLE is a nice place to start. Lake Ellsworth is nestled amidst the Ellsworth Mountains, with its location controlled by the topography around it. Think of this as your favorite beautiful, pristine lake up high in the Rocky Mountains (I’m imagining Twin Lakes near Beartooth Pass). This is a great lake  to drill to because it’s likely to have been around for awhile, which means sediment likely has been depositing there continuously. By taking a core of sediment from the lake, we hopefully will catch a glimpse of not only the past hundreds of thousand of years of Antarctic ice history (events like past catastrophic melting of ice sheets), but also hundreds of thousands of years of Earth’s climate as a whole. Since the lake has probably been isolated for such a long time too, any microbial life found in the lake will be a unique opportunity to see how life evolves in the most extreme of conditions.
  2. Subglacial Lake Vostok: I’ve posted a bit in the past about SLV, but I can review quickly. To start, Vostok Station is quite literally the coldest place on Earth (A record setting -128F!). But way back when (1970s), it seemed like a great place to drill an ice core because the ice was pancake flat and really thick. Like 2.3 miles thick. It had been hypothesized that there was a lake underneath, but it wasn’t until 1993 (after they had already drilled 1.7 miles of ice core!) that it was confirmed: yes, there is a lake beneath Vostok Station. And as it turns out, the lake was HUGE. Bigger than 4 of the 5 Great Lakes. Like any big lake, SLV has tides, its own circulation, and maybe its own biosphere. Since an international collaboration was already were drilling a big hole there, they might as well continue, right? The Russians “broke the seal” so to speak on the lake this past February (which I linked to above) and will continue working on sample collection and exploration of Lake Vostok this season and in the future.
  3. Subglacial Lake Whillans: You can read much more in depth about SLW at the WISSARD website or in my abbreviated explanation from last field season. This lake is different from Ellsworth and Vostok in that water is moving in and out of it pretty quickly (which is why we call it a “dynamic” or “active” subglacial lake). So while Lake Ellsworth is like a Rocky Mountain lake and Vostok is like a Great Lake, Whillans is a bit like the the Everglades in Florida: water moves which ever way is the most efficient at that moment, occasionally ponding, until the pond spills over the dam and resumes moving downstream. The water pathways reorganize as time goes on, filling and draining different sets of lakes. Though Whillans is significantly smaller than the other two, its likely a better environment for microorganisms to live in, with nutrients pumping through the system relatively quickly (by glacier standards).

Location of the lakes, compliments of BAS

Yes, three different countries have three different drilling projects into three different lakes. But we each are drilling into a unique aspect of the subglacial hydrologic system, so that in February, when we all return home from the ice, we can start putting together a coherent picture of how water (and life!) beneath the ice behaves from top to bottom (or more precisely, inside out), instead of extrapolating from a single point.

I guess that’s a long-winded way of telling you to keep your eyes peeled for news coming from Lake Ellsworth in the coming days. Also, there will be more pictures in future posts. Sorry :/



  1. […] they can solve the problem. We are all pulling for this outcome because Lake Ellsworth data would (as I previously mentioned) help put our data from Lake Whillans into better […]

  2. […] Race Is On To Find Life Under Antarctic Ice: I linked it yesterday, but why  not link it again! National Geographic had a great write up of the search for life in subglacial lakes, complete with quote from my advisor! Fantastic article, minus the whole “saying it’s a race in the title” thing. It’s not a race. […]

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