DIRECT MEASUREMENT & SAMPLING OF SUBGLACIAL LAKE ELLSWORTH: A multidisciplinary investigation of life in extreme environments & ice sheet history

Lead Research Organisation: National Oceanography Centre
Department Name: Science and Technology


This project has two fundamental scientific aims: (1) to determine whether, and in what form, microbial life exists in Antarctic subglacial lakes, and (2) to determine the history of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. To meet these aims, we will undertake the direct measurement and sampling of water and sediment within Subglacial Lake Ellsworth in West Antarctica. For over a decade, scientists have regarded subglacial lakes to be extreme yet viable habitats for microbial life. Additionally, sedimentary palaeoenvironment records are thought to exist on the floors of subglacial lakes, which would provide critical insights into the glacial history of Antarctica. Of the >150 known subglacial lakes, Lake Ellsworth stands out as an ideal candidate for exploration. Through a NERC-AFI award, glaciologists have shown the lake, beneath 3 km of ice, to be 10 km long, 2-3 km wide and 160 m deep, confirming it as an ideal deep-water lake for exploration. The deployment of heavy equipment has been shown to be possible at this location, based on several deep-field reconnaissance studies. This project will build, test and deploy all the equipment necessary to complete the experiment in a clean and environmentally responsible manner. Samples will be analysed and split at laboratories in the field and at Rothera Station, and then distributed to laboratories across the UK. This project, which has been in a planning stage for four years, will be a benchmark exercise in the exploration of Antarctica, will make profound scientific discoveries regarding life in extreme environments and West Antarctic Ice Sheet history, and will be of genuine interest to the public and media.


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Hodgson DA (2016) Technologies for retrieving sediment cores in Antarctic subglacial settings. in Philosophical transactions. Series A, Mathematical, physical, and engineering sciences

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Makinson K (2016) Clean subglacial access: prospects for future deep hot-water drilling. in Philosophical transactions. Series A, Mathematical, physical, and engineering sciences

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Mowlem M (2016) Probe technologies for clean sampling and measurement of subglacial lakes. in Philosophical transactions. Series A, Mathematical, physical, and engineering sciences

Description We have shown that it is possible to create a multifunctional probe with high reliability that incorporates water, particle and sediment samplers as well as multiple (redundant sensors) and that this can be cleaned so that it is not possible to detect ANY microbial life on its surfaces. Further we proved that this device worked before being shipped to Antarctica, and returned over a year later, was still free of detectable microbial contamination and worked on a repeated test deployment.

We also discovered deficiencies in the hot water drill (HWD) technology developed by BAS for the project. This failed to access the subglacial lake. This failure was subject to an excellent NERC coordinated failure review that identified numerous engineering and procedural shortcomings. This analysis and our own more detailed engineering analysis will be invaluable in future attempts to access deep subglacial lakes using HWD. We continue to work with BAS and others in HWD development and research to implement these findings

There are opportunities to redeploy in other subglacial lakes with international partners using the probe and possibly BAS / UK HWD technology. We are actively developing these plans
Exploitation Route 1) Clean probe design methods
2) use of the existing probes (2 off) in future subglacial access experiments
3) improvements in HWD technologies and development projects
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Electronics,Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

Description The short sediment corer at the front of the probe has been the subject of an innovation A funded market study prompted by interest from a UK instrumentation company. The results are encouraging and a reduced cost variant is in production and evaluation to examine the commercialisation potential further. In addition, there are a number of subglacial research teams requesting inclusion of the Probe technologies produced in their proposals and fieldwork campaigns. These remain confidential but include UK and a number of overseas research teams operating in both Greenland and Antarctica
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Security and Diplomacy
Impact Types Economic