|The sun is shining night and day in the Antarctic right now, but the temperatures remain far below freezing. Photograph: British Antarctic Survey|
Here's why it's important. Should life be found lurking in the depths, it will have evolved in isolation for at least 100,000 years, but probably much longer. I've seen millions mentioned. Scientists want to know whether life can endure such harsh environments. If it can, the next question is how. Any organisms that live here are cut off from the air above, and must contend with subzero conditions, few nutrients, complete darkness, and intense pressure.
The answers will further our understanding of life on Earth, and inform searches for life elsewhere in the solar system, such as in the ice-capped ocean of Jupiter's moon Europa.
Mike Bentley, a geologist, was quoted in yesterday’s Guardian: "Extreme environments tell you what constraints there are on life. If we find a particular set of environments where life can't exist, that creates some bookends: it tells you about the limits of life."
Another buried Antarctic lake, Lake Vostok, is being probed by Russian scientists. It's even deeper and more challenging, and the project has been criticised due to concerns that the Russians may contaminate the lake with microbes from the surface that would nullify any discovery of life there. The British team will use a sterile hot water drill to bore down. According to Nature, this method would be impractical at Lake Vostok due to the thicker glacier.
New Scientist reported in October that no sign of life has been discovered in the first Lake Vostok samples but microbes may lurk deeper in the lake.
The more life is found in buried Antarctic lakes the better the prospects for life on Jupiter's icy moon Europa.
|Beneath Europa's icy shell, it is thought a liquid ocean exists, potentially supporting complex organisms
For more see this Guardian link: British Antarctic Survey in pictures
Isolated for millions of years
One thing puzzles me in all the commentary on these Antarctic lakes. That’s the emphasis on their being isolated from all other life for perhaps millions of years. Even if this turns out to be so, millions of years doesn't strike me as long enough to be interesting. Some comments on this theme in a post I wrote about Lake Vostok in February 2011.