Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Antarctic underground lake could hold secrets of Earth's past

A lake hidden beneath three kilometres of ice in the western Antarctic could reveal what life on Earth looked like up to a million years ago and narrow down the search for extraterrestrial life.

A team of British scientists will arrive in Antarctica next week in the hope of becoming the first people to reach one of the frozen continent's 387 underground lakes.

Lake Ellsworth is likely to contain bacteria, microbes and other simple life forms which experts believe will have been sealed away from the rest of the Earth for up to a million years.

Samples of water and sediment to be collected from the lake could reveal undiscovered life forms which existed on Earth before the lake froze over, and what the planet's past climate was like.

The sediment collected from the bed of the lake is expected to support the theory that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which is currently on the wane thanks to higher global temperatures, has melted and collapsed in the past.

Scientists also hope to learn how any life is able to exist in one of the most extreme environments on the planet – a clue which could help astronomers searching for life beyond Earth.

A similar operation being carried out at Vostok, a different underground Antarctic lake, by Russian scientists has been beset by delays and technical problems for several years, but the British team hope to drill through the ice, obtain their samples and bring them to the surface in a matter of hours.

The expedition marks the climax of a 15-year project by eight British universities, the British Antarctic Survey and the National Oceanography Centre, funded principally by a £7 million grant from the National Environment Research Council.

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