The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) arrived in western Antarctica earlier in December, preparing for their anticipated mission to drill into Lake Ellsworth, a subglacial lake. After days of hard work, the team announced that it was stopping its efforts, stymied by a technical problem.
The team was one of three groups in Antarctica attempting to penetrate one of the continent’s 360 subglacial lakes. All hoped to find them teeming with exotic microbial life, untouched by surface air for millennia. The team planned on using hot-water drilling to get through 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) of ice to minimize contamination of the lake. This technique has been used before, but never to drill so deeply.
The technology required vast amounts of water and after 10 hours, the team managed to get 300 meters deep. There, they created a reservoir of water. A second borehole would be drilled into this reservoir. Then, the team would continue down the original borehole, completing a looped system. The reservoir at 300 m (984 feet) would replenish water at the surface that’s used to drill, and would help the team equilibrate the pressure between the lake and the borehole.
When the team tried to connect the second borehole to the reservoir, they failed to locate the reservoir. They used up too much fuel, and when calculations were made, they realized that they could no longer make a viable attempt to reach Lake Ellsworth.
It will most likely take 4 to 5 years before the BAS team is able to return to Lake Ellsworth to attempt it once again. It may actually take a couple of years to retrieve all of the equipment and return it to the UK to figure out what exactly went wrong.