Drill reaches ancient Antarctic lake

Posted by Emma Woollacott

An American research team has successfully drilled through 2,600 feet of Antarctic ice to reach a subglacial lake and collect water and sediment samples that have been isolated for thousands of years.

The Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling project (WISSARD) team says the samples may give clues to the chances of life existing elsewhere in the solar system.

Any microscopic life they find will have evolved, independently of the outside world, to survive in conditions of extreme cold and lack of light and nutrients.

WISSARD targeted a smallish lake beneath the ice sheet, about 1.2 square miles in area, where several lakes appear linked to each other and may drain to the ocean.

"Sensors on the hot water drill show a water pressure change, indicating that the borehole has connected with the lake," says the team. "Verification awaits visual images from a down-borehole camera this evening. We are excited about the latest developments at the lake!"

The team will now process the water and sediment samples they have collected in hopes of finding out more about the structure and function of subglacial microbial life, climate history and contemporary ice-sheet dynamics.

It's the first time that clean whole samples have ever been retrieved from an Antarctic subglacial lake. Late last month, an even more ambitious attempt by the British Antarctic Survey to drill two miles down into another lake was called off, after technical problems.