Discovery of Antarctic subglacial rivers may challenge excavation plans
24 April 2006
Plans to drill deep beneath the frozen wastes of the Antarctic, to investigate subglacial lakes where ancient life is thought to exist, may have to be reviewed following a discovery by a British team led by UCL scientists at the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling (CPOM).
In a 'Letter to Nature' they report that rivers the size of the Thames have been discovered which are moving water hundreds of miles under the ice. The finding challenges the widely held assumption that the lakes evolved in isolated conditions for several millions years and thus may support microbial life that has evolved 'independently'. It has been suggested that if microbes exist in the lakes, they could function in the same way as those in the subsurface ocean of Jupiter's moon Europa or within subsurface water pockets on Mars.
Professor Duncan Wingham, of UCL, Director of CPOM and who led the team, says: "Previously, it was thought water moves underneath the ice by very slow seepage. But this new data shows that, every so often, the lakes beneath the ice pop off like champagne corks, releasing floods that travel very long distances.
"A major concern has been that by drilling down to the lakes new microbes would be introduced. Our data shows that any contamination will not be limited to one lake, but will over time extend down the length of the network of rivers. We had thought of these lakes as isolated biological laboratories. Now we are going to have to think again."
Read the full press release.