Scientists in Antarctica reached Mercer Subglacial Lake on Dec. 26, finishing drilling over 3,500 feet of ice to find a sign of life surviving in the hydraulically active lake. The team drilled for two days with a high-pressure, hot-water drill, melting their way through the ice.
The lake lies under the Willans Ice Plain, part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. It is almost 62 square miles in area and was discovered over a decade ago through satellite imagery. This is the first time that it is being explored.
This is one of some 400 lakes that lay under the Antarctic ice sheets. According to experts, the existence of life there could mean similar organisms will be found on Mars or on Jupiter and Saturn’s ice-covered moons.
The Subglacial Antarctic Lakes Scientific Access (SALSA) research team released a statement that said, “After four days of troubleshooting components that sustained wear and tear from sitting through two winters on ice, the Drill Team began drilling the main borehole on the evening of December 23 and reached the lake faster than expected at 10:30 pm on December 26 with a borehole depth of 1084 meters.”
The team is comprised of 45 scientists, drillers, and other staff with other specializations. The day after they completed drilling on the hole, the team sent down an instrument to take measurements. In addition, they will send down a remote-controlled vehicle to get more pictures and take more measurements.
They hope that the vehicle’s three cameras will be able to capture images of the types of animals that may live in the dark water.
Nature magazine spoke to project leader John Priscu, a lake ecologist from Montana State University in Bozeman, who revealed: “We don’t know what’s going to be there.”
“That’s what makes it so fun,” he added.
In 2013, some of these researchers bored into a smaller subglacial lake nearby called Lake Willans, finding it teeming with microscopic lifeforms.
The team intends to study the lake by seeing how deep it is, measuring the temperature, and ascertaining how clean the water is. Two tests conducted thus far have shown the water is “as clean as filtered water can get,” according to the project’s principal investigator, Brent Christner.