Drilling for mysteries hidden beneath the Antarctic ice
It may be one of the biggest scientific stories of the year, but plans to drill for more than 3km beneath the ice of Antarctica in an extraordinary search for living creatures – the brainchild of Bristol scientist Professor Martin Siegert – could revolutionise our understanding of life itself. David Clensy meets the professor ahead of his journey to the bottom of the world
IT sounds like a plot straight from a Jules Verne novel. But as I walk with Professor Martin Siegert out of his Bristol University office and across Berkeley Square, it quickly becomes clear that his outlandish scheme owes more to science fact than fiction.
Martin, a professor of geo-science at the university, tells me of his extraordinary experiment with all the passion of a man who has been planning a single day for the last 16 years. Every detail is finely tuned in his mind, and now all that's left for him is to actually do it.
Martin is to lead a 12-man team of British scientists and engineers who will be heading out to the unforgiving ice sheets of western Antarctica next month to drill beneath the ice – 3.5km beneath the ice.
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Nobody has ever drilled so deeply through the polar ice sheet of Antarctica before, and Martin's experiment may well revolutionise our understanding of life itself.
For deep beneath the solid ice the original Antarctic continent still stands – suspended beneath the ice for millennia, the landscape is in a deep freeze – except in a few locations where Martin and his fellow scientists believe some lakes may still exist.
Incredibly, Martin believes that deep below the kilometres of ice, fresh water lakes are kept in liquid form thanks to the heat of deep thermals emerging from within the Earth.
More incredible still, Martin and his team believe living organisms probably live in these ice-locked waters. If the team can prove these microbes exist, it would revolutionise science's understanding of the resilience of life – which could have implications for astrophysicists' predictions for where life could exist on other planets.
As we walk down Park Street – towards Martin's favourite coffee shop – we are joined by his Bristol University partner in the project, Professor Martyn Tranter – an expert on water chemistry.
Martyn will accompany his colleague on the daring trip to the harsh -25°C climate of the Antarctic summer, with its 25 knot winds and -50°C wind chill. But Martyn's work will really begin in the labs of Bristol University, once they have returned home with their tiny samples of the sub-glacial waters of Lake Ellsworth early next year.
For Martyn Tranter it is a "once in a lifetime opportunity to be in involved in a chance to change science", and for Martin Siegert, drilling through the ice will be a landmark moment in his life's work.
"It all began for me back in 1996," Martin Siegert explains, as he plunges his spoon deep into the thick white layer of foam on his cappuccino.
"I published a paper that year on sub-glacial lakes in Antarctica, which I'd spent the previous two years writing – the very existence of these lakes, some of which are the size of the Great Lakes of North America, had only recently been confirmed using sonar surveying, and I was already formulating the idea in my mind of drilling a bore hole down through the ice to sample the water for life forms.
"Science has long held on to the theory that where there is liquid water, there is likely to be life – because it's pretty much all life needs to survive. Going by this theory you have to think, if there could be life there, then there probably is – why wouldn't there be?"
Martyn, perhaps sensing my puzzlement, elaborates: "There are simple forms of microbial life that essentially need nothing but water to survive – they live off the minerals emanating off the rockbed, and we know that these creatures can survive at incredibly high and incredibly low temperatures, and far removed from daylight."
Martin adds: "If we can prove there is life down there, in such an inhospitable place, the ramifications would be great for our understanding of where extraterrestrial life may also exist."
And if no life is found? Would the whole 16 years of planning be a waste of time?
"Not at all," Martin says. "If anything, it will be even more exciting for us if no trace of life is found – because that would mean we'd have found the edge of the resilience of life – the border at which it is unable to exist, and that would tell us a lot about the history of life on our planet, and potentially on other planets."
Martyn nods in agreement: "It would be the first habitat on Earth that science has found where no life exists, so that would be a very significant thing. But to be honest, we're confident we will find life."
But drilling for more than 3km beneath the surface of Antarctica is not a simple operation – the £8 million project offers a plethora of technical, scientific and diplomatic hurdles before the experiment can even begin.For a start, Martin had to present the idea to the council of more than 50 nations that monitors all scientific activity on the nationless continent.
With the world's scientific community reassured of the scientific importance and environmental safety of the project, work then began on the engineering challenge of drilling to such depths in the most remote place on Earth. For the past three years a team of engineers from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) have pushed the boundaries of polar technology to design and build a titanium water-sampling probe and a bespoke sediment corer capable of being lowered down Martin's three kilometre borehole in the ice, which will be made by a custom-built hot-water drill.
To add to the challenge every piece of technology has to be sterilised to space industry standards to ensure this unexplored lake remains pristine.
Martin and his team will set out for Antarctica on November 25 – and will work in their science camp on the ice sheet throughout Christmas, until mid-January. But after setting up the camp and preparing all the equipment to start the mission, the team will have just 24 hours to sample the water before the borehole re-freezes and re-seals the lake.
"It would be tempting for us all to stay awake for the whole 24 hours," Martin says."But we're going to have to be strict about forcing ourselves to take brief naps – I'm all too aware that if you don't sleep, you start making mistakes. We can't afford to do that."
Sediments taken from the lake bed will add a second element to the mission – helping scientists to put a date to the arrival of ice on the west Antarctic.
This helps environmental scientists to predict the point of global warming at which the ice may start to retreat in this critical area.
"This research is at the frontier of exploration and has been made possible through the unique partnership created by two Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Centres of Excellence, and eight UK universities," Martin says. "For the first time we are standing at the threshold of making new discoveries about a part of our planet that has never been explored in this way.
"Finding life in a lake that could have been isolated for up to half a million years is an exciting prospect, and the lake-bed sediments have the potential to paint a picture of the history of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in a way that we haven't seen before."
*You can follow the team's progress at www.ellsworth.org.uk