The latest mystery to develop in Antarctica is the exploration of a long “lost” ancient lake lying over a kilometer below the continent’s ice sheet. Lake Mercer is referred to as a ‘lost’ lake because it exists below the surface of the ice, cut off from the rest of the world. It’s been that way for tens of millions of years, meaning this “lost lake” is a veritable time machine into prehistory. Even more exciting is the possibility that this isolated body of water could contain a unique, untouched ecosystem unlike anything else on the planet. What might we find at the bottom of Lake Mercer?
Scientists with the Subglacial Antarctic Lakes Scientific Access (SALSA) project drilled down to a depth of 1,084 metres (3,556 feet) in December 2018 using a tiny drill nozzle that sprays hot water. In order to ensure that the waters of Lake Mercer weren’t contaminated by the project, the drill water was sterilized with UV light and hydrogen peroxide using 500 tonnes of equipment that had to be shuttled for two months across the glacial surface from McMurdo Station.
Scientists plan to soon analyze sediments collected at the bottom of the lake in the hopes of discovering new organisms which might have been cut off from the rest of the world. Who knows what could have evolved down there over tens of millions of years? Whether or not we find life in space, the life we find in these super-remote corners of our own planet should be enough to rewrite the boring chapters of the biology books – if we ever find them before it’s too late. Let’s face it: contamination is inevitable, either in space or at the bottom of an Antarctic lake. It’s what we do best.