Subglacial Lake Ellsworth Review - Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions

Subglacial Lake Ellsworth Review

A review of the Subglacial Lake Ellsworth project was recently published in The Annals of Glaciology. The article included details of the Lake Ellsworth field experiment, the circumstances that led to its failure and the corrections required for future success.

About the Project


This UK project, involving the British Antarctic Survey, the National Oceanography Centre and several Universities, had been in planning for over 10 years. The ambition was to access the lake through 3 km of ice using a specially engineered hot-water drill. The drill hole would be used to deploy probes to take samples and measurements, to look for life in the lake, and to acquire records of past ice and climate change. In the early hours of 25 December 2012, however, drilling was stopped after the main borehole failed to link with a pre-drilled subsurface cavity of water, built up over 40 hours. Without this link, insufficient water was available to continue drilling to the lake, 3000m beneath the surface.

Why a Review?

The researchers noted that the lessons learned from the Lake Ellsworth experience were substantial and that considerable technological and methodological advances are necessary for successful future research of subglacial lakes beneath thick (>2km) ice. A full review of the project enabled the Lake Ellsworth program to formulate a pathway along which a second attempt to explore the lake can be developed. It will take several years to implement the recommended solutions but the researchers remain optimistic. They note that if the sub-ice continent of Antarctica is to be explored and understood, it is essential that a clean, rapid, efficient means by which it can be accessed must be developed. As a consequence, the long-term legacy of the Lake Ellsworth program may yet be truly significant.

ALE’s Contribution

ALE was involved in the project at an early stage. ALE’s ability to fly large and heavy cargo deep into Antarctica and our extensive experience with overland traverses was a key part of the field deployment phase of the Subglacial Lake Ellsworth project.

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