Ancient Lakes Miles Below Antarctica May Hold Climate Clues, New Life Forms
All Antarctica photos: Subglacial Lake Ellsworth Consortium, Neil Ross/University of Edinburgh
Cocktail party fact incoming: There are hundreds of liquid lakes that lie miles beneath Antarctica. Unfrozen, but still-cold-as-hell, lakes. The largest, Lake Vostok, boasts three times the volume of the Great Lake Ontario, itself one of the biggest freshwater bodies in the world. Now, scientists are planning the first-ever research expedition to learn more about the underground water stores. They're hauling 80 tons of equipment down to Antarctica to attempt to drill two miles below the surface to Lake Ellsworth -- where they believe they'll find clues about the impact of climate change and, potentially, new forms of life. According to io9, these frigid subterranean lakes are kept from freezing over by geothermal activity and constant pressure from ice sheets that lower their melting point. As such, they make for fascinating, hitherto unexplored environments.
The Guardian reports that the "team will prepare for a challenging drilling operation starting next November to collect water and sediment samples from the lake's floor, which will help scientists assess the stability of the west Antarctic ice sheet and future sea level rises."
Mike Bentley, a glacial geologist at Durham University, told the newspaper that "If we can find out if or when the ice sheet retreated or collapsed, it could tell us what kind of conditions would lead to a west Antarctic retreat in the future." In other words, they stand to learn more about what might trigger a catastrophic collapse of the west Antarctic ice sheet today.
The sexier element of the expedition, however, is certainly the prospect of discovering new organisms that live in extreme conditions. Dr. David Pearce, the science coordinator at the British Antarctic Survey, explains (via io9):
"Finding life in a lake that could have been isolated from the rest of the biosphere for up to half a million years will tell us so much about the potential origin of and constraints for life on Earth, and may provide clues to the evolution of life on other extraterrestrial environments. If we find nothing this will be even more significant because it will define limits at which life can no longer exist on the planet."
Clues about global climate change, and discovering the limits by which life can no longer survive on the planet -- sounds like the goals of the expedition were made for each other.