This November, a team from the British Antarctic Survey will spend three days boring through 3.4km of Antarctic ice into a small sub-glacial lake in search of wildly new forms of live. They'll be able to do so thanks to a unique hot water drill designed and built in part by Mechanical Engineer Andy Webb.
Gizmodo: Could you give us a little background on how your own scientific experience and came to be a part of this project?
Andy Webb: I have worked for the British Antarctic Survey since 2006 as a Mechanical Engineer. I initially wintered for 18 months at Rothera Research Station (The largest of all our Antarctic stations) Over the years I have spent a great deal of time on three of our Island bases, Bird Island, South Georgia and Signy Islands in a facilities engineer role and undertaking installation and maintenance on equipment such as generators, reverse osmosis plants and Hydroelectric Turbines. More recently I have been involved in the design and build of the hot water drilling system for the Lake Ellsworth project.
Giz: Why a hot water drill? What advantages does it have over conventional drilling methods?
AW: There are indeed a number of ways to drill ice to create a hole. From coring where you remove individual ice corers as you drill to thermal probes that melt their way through the ice. We selected hot water drill as this is a system we at BAS have used for many years but not on this current scale. Hot water drilling provides the quickest and cleanest way to create a hole as large as we require for deploying and retrieving our sampling equipment.
Giz: Why Lake Ellsworth and not one of the other 400 or so known, sealed lakes scattered about Antarctica?
AW: Lake Ellsworth was selected for a number of reasons:
- It is small and therefore easy to understand.
- Near an ice divide where lake access is not complicated by ice flow.
- Enclosed topographically and therefore resistant to ice sheet changes that might occur over glacial cycles.
- Close to the logistical hub at Union Glacier, from which heavy loads can be input from South America to Antarctica and deployed to the lake site.
Giz: What do you hope to find in the lake? Just microbes or is there a reasonable chance of finding macroscopic organisms?
AW: If we find life in sub glacial Lake Ellsworth it will be significant because the lake water has been under high pressure, shut off from any light, and isolated for up to half a million years. If we don't find signs of life it will be even more significant because it will reveal the limits at which life on Earth can no longer exist. The likelihood is that whatever we find will be of a microbial nature.
Giz: How do you maintain the integrity of the samples you'll collect (ie preventing contamination from your equipment, keeping them viable during transport, etc)?
AW: The integrity of the samples will be maintained by retrieving the probe back in to its sterile transit case that it was deployed from. This case and the probe will have been sterilized in the UK and maintained like this throughout the deployment and retrieval stages of the project.