The British hot-water drilling project to penetrate Antarctica's subglacial Lake Ellsworth came to a frustrating end on Christmas eve.
The plan had been to melt one borehole 300 meters (984 feet) deep into the ice, allow hot water to pool at that depth creating a cavity, and then melt another borehole 2 meters (6.5 feet) away and parallel to the first that would go through the cavity and continue the distance of 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) to the buried lake. The cavity and the first borehole would then be used to recirculate the drilling water back to the surface.
After arriving during the week of December 12 for this season's attempt to drill into the lake, the team soon hit a delay. Their heater for the drill water broke. A circuit used in the main boiler that supplies hot water to the drill
had burned out twice, reported OurAmazingPlanet.
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Martin Siegert, the lead investigator for the project and a glaciologist at the
University of Bristol, explained in a statement released today from the British Antarctic Survey, which is funding the £8 million (US$13 million) project, that the team received a replacement part and successfully drilled the first borehole over the weekend.
After waiting 12 hours for the cavity to form, the team then drilled the second main borehole, but when it got to a depth of 300 meters there was no cavity there to connect to it. The team continued to find a way to connect the two boreholes together via a cavity for 20 hours.
According to the statement from BAS:
During this process, hot water seeped into the porous surface layers of ice and was lost. The team attempted to replenish this water loss by digging and melting more snow, but their efforts could not compensate. The additional time taken to attempt to establish the cavity link significantly depleted the fuel stocks to such a level as to render the remaining operation unviable. Reluctantly the team had no option but to discontinue the programme for this season.
"On Christmas Eve we took the decision to cease our efforts to directly measure and sample Subglacial Lake Ellsworth. Although circumstances have not worked out as we would have wished, I am confident that through the huge efforts of the field team, and our colleagues in the UK, we have done as much as we possibly could have done, and I sincerely thank them all," said Siegert. "Once back in the UK I will gather our consortium to seek ways in which our research efforts may continue. I remain confident that we will unlock the secrets of Lake Ellsworth in coming seasons."
Images courtesy of the Lake Ellsworth Facebook Page.