Lancaster Professor set to explore the Antarctic

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A team of British scientists, including Lancaster University’s own Professor Barbara Maher of the Environment Centre, are to explore Antarctica in search of new life.

The team are set to travel 78 degrees south to Lake Ellsworth where they will collect samples that could not only yield new knowledge about the evolution of our planet’s climate, but also in the hopes of finding evidence of new forms of life living in the harsh, hostile conditions of Antarctica.

An ‘advance’ team of engineers will travel first, where they will set up the some 70 tonnes of equipment before the remainder of the Antarctic explorers arrive in October 2012 to take the first ever sub-glacial Antarctic lake samples.

The lake itself is comparable in size to Britain’s largest lake, Lake Windermere, however unlike the popular Cumbrian holiday destination, Ellsworth lies under 3km of solid ice which must be drilled through using a specially designed hose, to which the consortium add: “Only two companies in the world could deliver a 3.4km-long continuous hose to the required specification – both based in the UK.”

The hose works by using hot water to melt a 36cm hole through the ice, before a 5m-long probe can then be sent down, taking with it various equipment, such as sample containers, a HD video camera and filters to separate any solids from the water.

Engineers working on the probe have had many problems to face. For example, when the probe is pulled back up to the surface, the water will begin to freeze, experiencing a pressure change of 300 to 2700 atmospheres.

Freezing outside of the probe is also a problem. As time progresses, the 3km hole that they melted will begin to refreeze, giving them approximately 24 hours to complete the whole operation, before bringing the samples and data back to Britain to be analysed.

The programme’s Principal Investigator, Professor Martin Siegert from the University of Edinburgh, says: “For almost 15 years we’ve been planning to explore this hidden world. It’s only now that we have the expertise and technology. We are tremendously excited.”

The Lake Ellsworth consortium programme is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council.

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