Digging Deep in Antarctica


A team of British engineers are digging deep to help facilitate climate change research in one of the world’s most extreme environments.

The British Antarctic Survey will see engineers building and running tractor trains and associated infrastructure to a drill site, which will see researchers burrowing a mile down into the Antarctic ground at Lake Ellsworth. Once the team has drilled deep enough, water and organic samples will be collected from the depths. Those samples will be used to help determine factors that have led to previous climate changes and will also, they hope, unearth previously undiscovered life forms and offer a glimpse into conditions from before the ice age.

The tractor trains will be used to transport some 70 tonnes of equipment and supplies across barren stretches of Antarctica to help facilitate the mission. Temperatures around the work site are often around minus-35 degrees Celsius.

The research project is not dissimilar to one carried out by Russian scientists at Lake Vostok. That controversial survey, believed to be the first successful probing of a subglacial lake, found detractors among environmental groups.

vostok station

vostok station

That group came under fire when they filled a 12,300-foot borehole with anti-freeze agents to prevent their work site from freezing over while they conducted their work. Critics of the project suggested the agents with which they filled the hole could cause lasting damage to the area’s ecosystem and to the very life forms the scientists hoped to study. They questioned whether the advances made through the project would be offset – or worse – by the potential damage done to ensure the work could be completed.

“I can understand the Russians don’t want to start over — it’s a four-kilometre ice sheet — but this is a unique place,” said Claire Christian of the Antarctic and Southern Coalition.

British Antarctic Survey members have backed their Russian counterparts, suggesting the work will herald a new era in both the scientific and engineering fields. Professor Martin Siegert of the British team said the work at Lake Vostok marked a huge step forward for both disciplines and lauded the Russians for their efforts, upon which the British Antarctic Survey can only build.

“It is an important milestone that has been completed and a major achievement for the Russians because they’ve been working on this for years,” he said.

lake ellsworth antarctica

lake ellsworth antarctica

While the extremely cold climate of Antarctica remains a relatively untapped potential source of scientific knowledge, projects such as those undertaken at Lake Ellsworth and Lake Vostok could bridge some gaps in our understanding of the world.

Unless the proper care is taken, however, there will always be critics who question the teams’ methods and the long-term impact their work could have.

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