The hunt for ancient life under the Antarctic ice has ended for one British team, after technical problems forced drills offline over the holidays. "On Christmas Eve we took the decision to cease our efforts to directly measure and sample Subglacial Lake Ellsworth" professor Martin Siegert of the British Antarctic Survey confirmed, with experts still uncertain as to what prevented two 300m boreholes from converging as planned, and allowing scientists to search for subglacial life and evidence of climate change.
"Sixteen years ago, we hypothesised that deep-water subglacial lakes are viable habitats for life, and contain important records of ice and climate history" Siegert explained. "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 BAS project is one of several that have been undertaken to explore the potential for life in the inhospitable environs under the Antarctic. Previous drilling sessions have revealed evidence of a rainforest 52m years ago, as well as discovering the world's oldest super-clean water system, but the BAS team hoped to go further again and identify simple lifeforms managing to survive roughly two miles under the ice.
While the exact issue that scuppered the British team's search has not been identified, in the end it was a lack of fuel that forced a halt. An initial 300m borehole was drilled and then left for twelve hours to form a hot water cavity; however, the second 300m borehole - used for recirculation - failed to connect, and in the 20hr process of trying to link the two, the generators ran out of fuel.
"This is of course, hugely frustrating for us, but we have learned a lot this year" Siegert concluded. "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."
Dismantling the equipment, bringing it back to the UK, figuring out what went wrong and then restaging a mission could take 5-6 years, Siegert told the BBC, assuming funding is found. In the meantime, US and Russian teams will continue their own schemes to explore the underground water.