Antarctic subglacial drilling effort suspended

British team calls off campaign to penetrate Lake Ellsworth

One of three major efforts to drill into buried Antarctic lakes has ended without success. A British-led project to plumb the subglacial Lake Ellsworth ground to a halt on Christmas Eve, after the team could not properly connect two portions of the drilling system.

GOING DEEP Technicians guide a hot-water drill down a borehole into the ice above Lake Ellsworth. The project was halted when two such boreholes could not be connected properly 300 meters deep. Subglacial Lake Ellsworth Consortium

Scientists had hoped to penetrate 3 kilometers of ice to reach the lake, where they would sample the pristine water for signs of life. Researchers hope that studying some of Antarctica’s hundreds of subglacial lakes will offer clues to whether ice-covered planets and moons could also support life.  

But after drilling two boreholes next to one another, each to 300 meters deep, engineers could not connect the two underground cavities that were meant to recirculate drilling water to the surface and keep it from contaminating the lake below.

“While the equipment was working well, the progress was slower than we had planned for, and we did a calculation which showed us that we didn’t have enough fuel to get to the surface of the lake,” team leader Martin Siegert of the University of Bristol said in a video broadcast from the ice. “This is very sad for us, and we’re extremely disappointed.” The Ellsworth team is leaving Antarctica for the season and will decide whether to return next year.

A Russian team penetrated Lake Vostok in February 2012 and is working to retrieve the first water samples from the lake. And a U.S.-led team plans to set out from McMurdo station this week on a mission to penetrate Lake Whillans (SN Online: 12/15/12).

Alexandra Witze is a contributing correspondent for Science News. Based in Boulder, Colo., Witze specializes in earth, planetary and astronomical sciences.

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