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Mission update from Principal Investigator

In the early hours of Christmas Day (Tuesday 25 December 2012) Professor Martin Siegert, Principal Investigator of the Subglacial Lake Ellsworth experiment, confirmed that the mission to drill into the lake has been called off for this Antarctic season. Drilling was proceeding well during the weekend after a replacement part was fitted to the boiler used to heat water for drilling.

Drilling stopped after the team was unable to form properly the water-filled cavity 300 metres beneath the ice. This cavity was to link the main borehole with a secondary borehole used to recirculate drilling water back to the surface.

Martin said “On Christmas Eve we took the decision to cease our efforts to directly measure and sample Subglacial Lake Ellsworth. Although circumstances have not worked out as we would have wished, I am confident that through the huge efforts of the field team, and our colleagues in the UK, we have done as much as we possibly could have done, and I sincerely thank them all. I am also hugely grateful to the UK Natural Environment Research Council for making it possible for us to attempt the direct exploration of subglacial Antarctica. Sixteen years ago, we hypothesised that deep-water subglacial lakes are viable habitats for life, and contain important records of ice and climate history. For now, these hypotheses remain untested. Once back in the UK I will gather our consortium to seek ways in which our research efforts may continue. I remain confident that we will unlock the secrets of Lake Ellsworth in coming seasons.”

The first borehole was drilled to a depth of 300m and then left at that depth for 12 hours to create the cavity. The second, main borehole (located 2m away from the first) was then drilled to 300m depth and should have immediately connected with this cavity. This main borehole would then continue through the cavity and down to the lake while the first borehole would be used to recirculate water back to the surface using a submersible pump. In this way, the ice cavity can be used to balance the level of water in the boreholes and hence balance the pressure from the lake upon breakthrough.

For reasons that are yet to be determined the team could not establish a link between the two boreholes at 300m depth, despite trying for over 20 hours. During this process, hot water seeped into the porous surface layers of ice and was lost. The team attempted to replenish this water loss by digging and melting more snow, but their efforts could not compensate. The additional time taken to attempt to establish the cavity link significantly depleted the fuel stocks to such a level as to render the remaining operation unviable. Reluctantly the team had no option but to discontinue the programme for this season.

Professor Siegert continues, “This is of course, hugely frustrating for us, but we have learned a lot this year. By the end the equipment was working well, and much of it has now been fully field tested. A full report on the field season will be compiled when the engineers and programme manager return to UK.”

Thank you to everyone for your continued support over the past few weeks, which has meant a great deal to all the team working on this amazing project, especially the 12 men on the ice in Antarctica. Over the next week we will upload some more videos and images of our activities from the past few days so you can see how we were getting on over the Christmas period. We hope you all had a fantastic Christmas and all the best for the new year.

19 Responses to “Mission update from Principal Investigator”

  1. Steve Says:

    Oh no! Such a shame guys! Hopefully luck will be on your side next time!

  2. Nigel Says:

    Very sorry to hear the news guys – hope you are back next year

  3. Bram Says:

    80% of your journey was building the probe and getting everything in place. This is a setback but not the end – so good luck for next season. and Happy New Year!

  4. Mike Lawson-Smith Says:

    I’m so sorry to hear that it’s not worked out on this occasion. That’s the nature of frontier science, I’m learning! I know you guys can technically resolve this, and really hope NERC can cut some financial slack for another season at Lake Ellsworth!

  5. Andy Says:

    That’s such bad news guys :-( All the hard work and effort that have gone into this project for the past few years postponed until you can try again. Don’t let this setback put you off though – you were so close to revealing the mysteries of Lake Ellsworth!

  6. Savitha radhakrishnan Says:

    Really sad. Well done everyone for reaching this far. Looking forward to the next phase of work Hopefully next season. Good luck

  7. Robert Says:

    Extremely sorry to read this disappointing news this morning. I hope that NERC will find further funding to support this most exciting and worthwhile project. Good luck to you all for 2013.

  8. Tom L-C Says:

    Bother – that is really bad luck.

  9. Jason Wilson Says:

    So very disappointing — unquestionably because we’ll have to wait a little longer for the science — but perhaps more so for the amazing Ellsworth team who has invested so much personally and professionally in this grand endeavour. Very much looking forward to the next attempt (hopefully next season)!

    What fate will befall all of the equipment and infrastructure that you’ve installed at the site? Will it be abandoned, or packed-up and carted back to the UK?

  10. Barry Arnold Says:

    Congratulations on a great effort. We enjoyed following your progress in the US. A setback is not a failure. Good job.

  11. Bob Zook Says:

    I am sorry to hear about the delay in your project. Sometimes science is advanced by the harshest mechanisms! We are all very interested in hearing more.

    Did you have any drop cameras for investigating the conditions in your well? What size was your hole to the 300m level? Would an ROV have helped solve your mysteries?

  12. Steve McComas Says:

    Stay calm and carry on

  13. Cesare Brizio Says:

    You did all that you could and nobody is to blame. Next time it will be even more exciting! I congratulate you on your pioneering endeavour.

  14. Patrick Stephensen Says:

    You are to be congratulated in getting as far as you did. I’m sure analysis of the problems will produce solutions for next year.


  15. Jean Orr Says:

    So disappointing for you all – could the cavity have an expandable lining next time? And there must be a next time – such a fascinating project.

  16. Nations Race to Drill Into Hidden Antarctic Waters : 80beats Says:

    [...] Lake Ellsworth in mid-December. After a few technical glitches and a fuel shortage, they decided to call off the operation this week. The team is returning to the U.K. to regroup with hopes of eventually returning to [...]

  17. Billy Says:

    I don’t understand a few things. Hopefully it’ll be made clear later

    But, first and foremost, why couldn’t you just fly more fuel in?

  18. Annette Says:

    They ran out of time Billy. It could have been days to fly in more fuel, all the time the team would have been digging and melting snow, using up not just their own energy !!! but also more fuel.
    I think they got to the stage where they were fighting a losing battle against the continued threat of the holes freezing before they were ready to be sampled. I think.

    A real pity about the set backs :(

  19. Nations Race to Drill Into Hidden Antarctic Waters | My Blog Says:

    [...] Lake Ellsworth in mid-December. After a few technical glitches and a fuel shortage, they decided to call off the operation this week. The team is returning to the U.K. to regroup with hopes of eventually returning to [...]