Into the ice: pushing the boundaries of science and engineering
“A project like this is a once in a lifetime opportunity not just for the team but for everyone on the planet...The pathways to impact for this project are an integral part of the preparation phase and beyond.” - Professor Martin Siegert, Science Programme Director, Sub-glacial Lake Ellsworth Consortium
Exactly 100 years since the ill-fated Scott Expedition, a team of British scientists and engineers is drilling three kilometres into the Antarctic ice to take a sample from a sub-glacial lake that has not been disturbed hundreds of thousands of years. This is frontier science: what they will find is unknown, but the impact of the project, now and into the future, is myriad.
The Lake Ellsworth Sub Glacial Consortium is a £7 million project funded by the NERC. It brings together geologists, glaciologists, microbiologists, and engineers from across the UK to search for life forms in the waters of the lake and clues to past climate in the lake-bed sediments. The team has to solve a variety of engineering, scientific and logistical challenges to drill through 3km of ice in just three days to collect a sample which they hope will yield new scientific discoveries for years to come. For Professor Martin Siegert, Science Programme Director for the Subglacial Lake Ellsworth Consortium and the large multi-disciplinary team working with him, this project is the culmination of nearly two decades of preparation: gathering the diverse team of researchers, understanding the technological challenges, navigating the politics and finding the money.
“A project like this is a once in a lifetime opportunity not just for the team but for everyone on the planet. It opens up so many avenues for engagement with a wide range of people,” says Professor Siegert, “What we are doing is similar to the moon landings in the 1960s. What we might find at the bottom of the lake has fired up people’s imaginations. But it is not just about the sample and the secrets it might hold. The pathways to impact for this project are an integral part of the preparation phase and beyond.”
Economic exploitation of the Antarctic is forbidden under the international Antarctic Treaty, yet the project has created unexpected opportunities for potential economic impact. The team of mostly British engineers have had to find new design and technological solutions to manufacture large drilling equipment which can be packed into shipping containers for safe transportation to the Antarctic. They have also had to solve the complex engineering problem of how to capture the lakebed sediment and water sample and get it back to the surface without contamination to the sample or the lake itself. These innovations all have potential commercial application for British manufacturing and patents are being explored by one of the consortium partners, the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton.The British Antarctic Survey, based in Cambridge, has taken the lead on the project’s communication and outreach and has fully exploited the channels at its disposal. The website features a series of excellent short films that explain the different scientific and engineering challenges and research aims of the project. There are dedicated sections for different audiences – journalists, schools, engineers, scientists. Social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, is also being used. There are also future collaborations with artists planned once the fieldwork is over.
“If Lake Ellsworth's profile is high, it is a consequence of our media team matching the public interest over several years. Working with media specialists to achieve outreach and educational goals is essential, and their involvement in the project has worked well because they have been involved from the very early stage of its planning and development, “says Professor Siegert.
The team has encouraged contact from the media, making themselves available for interviews and issuing regular press releases at the different stages of the project. A press conference at the Science Media Centre last autumn led to two national newspaper front pages and there has been radio and TV coverage too. The project has just £140,000 for communication and outreach activities so it cannot fund a professional film crew to accompany them on the drill. Instead, they have had to put the filming of the event to an open competition, asking documentary filmmakers to put in a proposal. This process is ongoing.
Going into schools and engaging with young people is a prominent part of the project’s impact activities.
“This is a fantastic opportunity to get young people excited about science and engineering and show them where it might take them. I come from an ordinary background and I had no one to advise me or show me what I could do with science and maths qualifications. The joy of this project is that it involves such a wide range of skills and disciplines and shows how they might be applied in exciting ways. Once we have done the drilling, we want to organise a national tour of schools to talk about the project and what we have found,” explains Professor Siegert.
Three years in, this ambitious, innovative, and world-leading project is still at the starting blocks in relation to actual research findings. There are about 360 sub glacial lakes so there are potentially many more years of scientific discovery ahead. The impact of the Lake Ellsworth project is unknown, but the pathways are being laid to ensure that whatever the outcome they will be communicated and understood by a large global audience.