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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 January 2008, 15:36 GMT
Antarctic lake may hold life clue
Lake Ellsworth is under the ice
Lake Ellsworth is under the ice in West Antarctica
An Edinburgh scientist's study of a 15 million-year-old lake buried under the ice of Antarctica could yield clues on climate change and the origins of life.

Edinburgh University researcher Neil Ross is part of a four-man team camped on an Antarctic ice sheet.

The group, which also includes members of the British Antarctic Survey, are to explore an ancient subglacial lake about the size of Loch Katrine.

Lake Ellsworth, in West Antarctica, is buried under 3.2kms of ice.

About 150 lakes have been discovered beneath the Antarctica's vast ice sheet and so far little is known about them
Professor Martin Siegert
Edinburgh University

The scientists believe the 10km-long lake could give scientists vital insights into climate change, future rises in sea-levels and the origins of life on earth.

It is one of more than 150 lakes locked beneath Antarctica's vast ice sheets that have been discovered using radar and satellite technologies.

Professor Martin Siegert, principal investigator on the International Polar Year project that is investigating the lake and head of Edinburgh University's School of GeoSciences, said the lake could show signs of ancient life.

He said: "We are particularly interested in Lake Ellsworth because it is likely to have been isolated from the surface for hundreds of thousands of years.

"Radar measurements made previously from aircraft surveys suggest that the lake is connected to others that could drain ice from the West Antarctic Ice sheet to the ocean and contribute to sea level rise.

"About 150 lakes have been discovered beneath the Antarctica's vast ice sheet and so far little is known about them."

He said the lakes were important for a number of reasons.

Extraterrestrial environment

He said: "For example, because water acts as a lubricant to the ice above, they may influence how the ice sheet flows.

"Their potential for unusual life forms could shed new light on evolution of life in harsh conditions; lake-floor sediments could yield vital clues to past climate."

He added the lakes could also help to give insight into the extraterrestrial environment of Europa - one of Jupiter's moons.

Dr Andy Smith, of the British Antarctic Survey, who is leading the expedition, said: "This is the first phase of what we think is an incredibly exciting project.

"We know the lake is 3.2km beneath the ice; long and thin and around 18 kilometres squared.

"But as we don't know how deep it is that will be the focus of our experiments this time.

"If the survey work goes well, the next phase will be to build a probe, drill down into the lake and explore and sample the lake water."

SEE ALSO
New lakes beneath Antarctic ice
23 Feb 07 |  Science/Nature
Antarctic water world uncovered
15 Feb 07 |  Science/Nature
Robo-sub takes Antarctic plunge
20 Feb 07 |  Science/Nature

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