School of GeoSciences

The Exploration of Subglacial Lake Ellsworth

The Exploration of Subglacial Lake Ellsworth


More than one hundred and forty five subglacial lakes have been discovered beneath the Antarctic ice sheet. These lakes have been isolated from the surface for considerable periods of time and each represents a unique environment. Life in subglacial lakes must adapt to total darkness, low nutrient levels, high water pressures and isolation from the atmosphere. Subglacial lakes thus represent unique biological habitats.

Drilling, sampling and studying subglacial lakes remotely and without causing their contamination represents a considerable physical and technological challenge. In this regard the exploration of ice lakes represents a good analogue for the exploration of planets and satellites such as Europa.

One subglacial lake in West Antarctica, named Lake Ellsworth, is well suited to exploratory research. This website contains information on the development of a UK-led plan to survey, measure and sample this unique environment.

[a basil brush moment] Geophysical exploration of Subglacial Lake Ellsworth (funded by the Natural Environment Research Council) took place over two Antarctic field seasons in 2007/08 and 2008/09, when small teams of scientists were deployed on the ice above the lake. Using seismic and radar surveys, they were able to map the outline of the lake, measure the depth of the water (150 m at its deepest) and establish that sediments suitable for coring, which could contain a record of ice sheet history, are present on the lake floor.

Based on the results of the geophysical exploration, which demonstrated that Subglacial Lake Ellsworth is an ideal candidate for further investigation, the United Kingdom’s Natural Environment Research Council approved funding for direct exploration of the lake in 2012/13 by members of the Lake Ellsworth Consortium. During this stage of the project scientists will use a hot water drill to melt through the overlying ice sheet into the lake water, before deploying a probe (to test for life in the lake) and a sediment corer (to recover sediment from the lake-floor). To allow people to follow this exciting project throughout it’s lifespan, we will be launching a brand new website in October 2009, when the next phase of the project begins.

The proposed exploration of Lake Ellsworth is a component of a plan to explore Antarctic Subglacial Lake Environments (a SCAR research programme). Links to the SALE webpage are available here.

For more information, contact Martin Siegert (, tel. 0131 650 7543).