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Lake Ellsworth: Exploring the Unknown

In December 2012, a team of British scientists and engineers will drill through 3km of solid ice into the buried Lake Ellsworth, Antarctica, to search for life forms in the water and clues to the past climate on earth buried in the lake bed sediments.

AIM has been helping the project in its own small, but important, way. Les Johnson (AIM’s Technical Director and resident insulation systems expert) has contributed to the project by designing an insulation system capable of protecting the stainless steel inlet pipe to the all-important hot water drill, down to continuous operating temperatures of as low as -25°C. This system incorporates elements provided by NMC UK, an insulation manufacturer based in Tredegar, South Wales who specialise in polyethylene foams, and combining this with a heat trace system manufactured by Pentair Thermal Management of Washington, Tyne and Wear.

The mission is the culmination of years of research into life in extreme environments.
If the team find life in the sub glacial lake, it will be significant as the lake’s water has been under incredible pressure and shut off from any light for up to half a million years, before the last Great Ice Age.
If the team are not successful in the search for life under lake Ellsworth it would be even more significant as it would reveal the limits at which life on earth can no longer exist. This in turn is of relevance as it would aid the search for life elsewhere on Earth, and on other planets.

So, why choose Lake Ellsworth? The first reason is that the lake itself is small, and therefore easy to understand. It is also isolated topographically and therefore resistant to ice sheet changes that occur over glacial cycles or ice flows that would disrupt the lake.

In terms of supply routes it makes a lot of sense too, as it is close to the logistical hub at Union Glacier from where heavy loads can arrive from South America and be transported to the site.

AIM will be following the progress of the mission closely. If you would like to know more about the mission you can visit their website at:

We will be bringing you a series of articles on the mission, we hope you will be as interested in the project as we all are at AIM.


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