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Press Release - Final frontier: mission to explore buried ancient Antarctic lake given green light

Issue date: 02 Mar 2009
Number: 03/2009

Field camp at Lake Ellsworth - in 2008 a BAS and the Universities of Edinburgh and Northumbria science team carried out seismic surveys to reveal what lies beneath the ice

An international team of scientists led by the UK has been given the go-ahead to explore one of the planet’s last great frontiers — an ancient lake hidden deep beneath Antarctica’s ice sheet. Buried under 3 km of ice, the lake — the size of Lake Windermere (UK) — may have been isolated for hundreds of thousands of years and could contain unique forms of life. The team hopes the exploration will yield vital clues about life on Earth, climate change and future sea-level rise.

Following the success in early 2008 of an International Polar Year project to map the extent and depth of subglacial Lake Ellsworth, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is funding a consortium of multidisciplinary researchers from nine UK universities, the British Antarctic Survey and the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton.

During the next five years the researchers will acquire and develop the technologies needed for this ambitious project. During the 2012–2013 Antarctic winter season the research team will go ‘deep field’ into West Antarctica to sample water from the lake in the search for tiny life forms never before seen; and to extract sediment from the lake bed to find clues as to how the climate has changed over many millennia.

Consortium leader Professor Martin Siegert from the University of Edinburgh said:

“This is a benchmark in polar exploration — our team will be the first to explore this ancient lake. It is a dark, cold place that has been sealed from the outside world and it’s likely to contain unique forms of life. We hope to discover more about how life can exist in extreme environments and how Antarctica has changed in the past — which might help us understand more about other places on earth.”

In such an extreme environment, the mere presence of life in itself would be a major scientific discovery, but there are very strong reasons to expect that such microorganisms would possess special or unique adaptations to this unusual and potentially hostile habitat.

David Blake, who is Head of Technology and Engineering at the British Antarctic Survey and is involved in the project, said:

“This project is a great scientific challenge and the technology required to drill 3km through the ice without contaminating the lake is equally ambitious. Over the next few years we will build a hot water drill and probe, and make preparations to transport a sophisticated operation deep into the interior of West Antarctica. We really are at the frontiers of scientific exploration.”

The exploration of subglacial lakes is part of an international effort to understand key global issues such as life in extreme environments and climate change.


Issued by the NERC press office:

Tamera Jones; tel: 01793 411561; mob: 07917 557215; email:

To arrange interviews and for further information contact:
Professor Martin Siegert, University of Edinburgh School of Geosciences; tel: 0131 650 7543; mob: 07780 703008; email:

Mr David Blake, British Antarctic Survey; tel: 01223 221477; mob: 07711 178970; email

Dr David Pearce, British Antarctic Survey; tel: 01223 221561; email:

Catriona Kelly, University of Edinburgh press office; tel: 0131 651 4401; mob: 07791 355940; email:

Linda Capper, British Antarctic Survey press office; tel: +44 (0)1223 221448; mob: 07714 233744; email:

Carl Stiansen, University of Durham press office; 0191 334 6077; mob: 0750 800 3770; email:

Leighton Kitson, University of Durham press office; tel: 0191 334 6073; email:

Kelly Cromar, University of Aberdeen press office; tel: 01224 272960l; email:

Mike Douglas, National Oceanography Centre, Southampton press office; tel: 023 8059 6001; email:

Kim Marshall Brown, National Oceanography Centre, Southampton press office; tel: 02380 596170; email:

Cherry Lewis, University of Bristol press office; tel: 0117 928 8086; email:

Notes to Editors:

Still images and graphics are available from The Exploration of Subglacial Lake Ellsworth webpage and Neil Ross (

Details of the five-year development of the Lake Ellsworth Exploration Programme

The programme includes researchers from the following institutions:

  • Main Contributors
    • University of Edinburgh
    • British Antarctic Survey
    • University of Aberdeen
    • University of Bristol
    • University of Northumbria
    • National Oceanography Centre, Southampton
    • University of Durham
  • Partner Institutions
    • Aberystwyth University
    • Open University
    • Lancaster University
    • Queen’s University Belfast
    • Montana State University, USA
    • Texas A&M, USA
    • Ohio State University, USA

The Scientific Committee of Antarctic Research (SCAR) set up a group of specialists called Subglacial Antarctic Lake Exploration (SALE) to consider and recommend mechanisms for the international coordination of a subglacial lake exploration program. Details of SALE’s meetings and recommendations are available from

Lake Ellsworth is 3km beneath the ice; long and thin and around 20km2 in area. Results from 2008/2009 experiments revealed that the lake is 150m deep.

Around 150 lakes have been discovered beneath Antarctica’s vast ice sheet and so far little is known about them. Getting into the lake is a huge technological challenge but the effort is worth it. These lakes are important for a number of reasons. For example, because water acts as a lubricant to the ice above they may influence how the ice sheet flows. Their potential for unusual life forms could shed new light on evolution of life in harsh conditions; lake-floor sediments could yield vital clues to past climate. They can also help us understand the extraterrestrial environment of Europa (one of the moons of Jupiter).

Since the 1970s scientists have used radar, seismic and satellite technologies to discover over 150 lakes locked beneath Antarctica’s vast ice sheets. The water beneath the ice remains liquid because of small levels of heat from the Earth’s core coming up through bedrock and from the insulating effect of several kilometres of ice above. The largest and most well known of these is Lake Vostok on East Antarctica. The lake is thought to be roughly the size of Lake Ontario.

Some subglacial lakes may be as old as the ice sheet. The age of the water within the lakes will be as old as the ice which melts into them, which in West Antarctica is around 150,000 years.

International Polar Year (IPY) 2007–2008 is the largest coordinated international scientific effort for 50 years. From ice sheets and space science to Arctic communities and the creatures of the Southern Ocean, IPY includes more than 200 Arctic and Antarctic projects and harnesses the skills of 50,000 people — including scientists, students and support staff — from more than 60 nations. IPY is sponsored by the International Council for Science (ICSU) and The World Meteorological Organization (WMO).