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Suffolk: Antarctic mission called off

08:00 28 December 2012

Prof Martin Siegert (far left) and his team when they arrived in Antarctica for the mission

Prof Martin Siegert (far left) and his team when they arrived in Antarctica for the mission

BAS

A PIONEERING scientific mission in Antarctica described as one of the “most exciting and ambitious” explorations of our time, has been called off by the Suffolk glaciologist leading the experiment.

The project’s principal investigator Martin Siegert, from Glemsford, confirmed that his team had been forced to abandon the landmark mission to drill through 3km of solid ice into subglacial Lake Ellsworth because of technical problems.

The aim was to lower a titanium water-sampling probe and sediment corer through a borehole cut through the ice by a specially-made hot-water drill, to search for life forms in the water below and sift through lake-bed sediments for clues about former climates.

The team initially anticipated breaking through the ice on December 15 but they experienced glitches with the boiler used to heat water for drilling. The work recommenced in the run up to Christmas after a replacement part was fitted, but Prof Siegert confirmed that drilling had stopped after the team was unable to form a water-filled cavity 300 metres beneath the ice to link the main borehole with a secondary borehole.

After more than 20 hours attempting to establish the cavity link, fuel stocks were depleted and rendered the remaining operation unviable, so the team had no option but to discontinue the programme for this season.

From Antarctica, Prof Siegert said: “This is of course, hugely frustrating for us, but we have learned a lot this year. By the end the equipment was working well, and much of it has now been fully field tested. A full report on the field season will be compiled when the engineers and programme manager return to UK.”

The former Sudbury Upper School student, whose brother Peter and mother Kath Siegert still live in the Sudbury area, has spent 16 years researching and preparing for the project. He added: “Sixteen years ago, we hypothesised that deep-water subglacial lakes are viable habitats for life and contain important records of ice and climate history.

“For now, these hypotheses remain untested. 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.”

The Lake Ellsworth Consortium is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council. It features researchers and scientists from the British Antarctic Survey, the National Oceanography Centre and nine UK universities.

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