An ancient lake hidden deep beneath West Antarctica’s ice sheet may reveal vital clues about climate change and future sea level rises, and uncover new forms of life, according to a group of UK engineers and scientists.
A British engineering team is studying one of the most remote and hostile environments on earth: Lake Ellsworth, which is buried under 3 kms of solid ice. The first step for scientists is building up a picture of the lake by analyzing the reflection of sound from a series of explosions. The lake is liquid because of the enormous pressure of the ice on top of it.
Lake Ellsworth is about 10 km long and 150 meters deep. Scientists speculate that the lake might contain primitive life forms that survive at incredibly low temperatures and high pressures.
David Pearce, a researcher with the project, said: “All of the microorganisms we’re familiar with, things that we use to make food, things that we encounter in the environment are growing in conditions that we’re happy with and we consider to be good. But there’s no reason for a microorganism why that is the best place to live. So these microorganisms have grown and adapted to exploit high pressure, low temperature, dark, different chemistry environments.”
According to scientists, there is a chance of finding more complex life forms like these microscopic sea bears. But all that depends on the drilling. Researchers plan to use hot water to drill a hole as wide as a CD, 3kms deep, taking water samples as they go. Then they’ll lower a hollow drill to the lake bed, and a motor will lift a hammer to drive the drill into the floor of the lake, where they expect to find life.
The team expects to find evidence of viruses, bacteria, single-celled microorganisms called archea and complex cell organisms called eukaryotes. These life forms could increase our understanding of how life on earth began and evolved.