While you were unwrapping presents and stuffing your face with ridiculous amounts of roast potatoes, a drill was making its way deep into the icy depths of Antarctica in the hunt for life and biochemical curiosities.
Between the evening of December 23 and the night of December 26, the Subglacial Antarctic Lakes Scientific Access (SALSA) project was busy drilling a 1,084-meter-deep (3,556-foot) borehole towards Lake Mercer, a mysterious subglacial body of water that's over twice the size of Manhattan.
The researchers have already sent down an instrument to measure the lake’s depth and temperature, but there’s much more to come. The new borehole will give scientists the chance to study the potential microbial life lurking in the depths of Antarctica. The team also hopes to learn whether complex organisms, perhaps animals, live in Lake Mercer. SALSA will send a remotely operated vehicle down through the hole and use it to explore the lake with the help of a camera and a sample-snatching claw.
Who knows, if life can dwell in Earth’s deep subglacial lakes, perhaps it could exist beneath the surface of Jupiter's icy moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus.
“We don’t know what’s going to be there,” project leader John Priscu, an ecologist at Montana State University, told Nature News. “That’s what makes it so much fun.”
Peter Doran, a polar scientist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, added: “We need to start building our knowledge, because it turns out that this is a vast ecosystem that’s completely unexplored.”
Scientists drilled into another Antarctic subglacial lake, known as Lake Whillans, back in 2013 and discovered that it’s surprisingly home to a bunch of different bacteria species. Some 800 meters (2,624 feet) beneath the ice, Lake Whillans is totally devoid of any sunlight, so organisms are unable to obtain energy through photosynthesis. It is, therefore, suspected they are chemotrophic bacteria that obtain energy through chemical reactions with minerals, just like the bacteria you find in other extreme environments on Earth.
Also, don't feel too sorry for the SALSA team who had to work over the holiday period in the starkly lonely continent of Antarctica. In between work shifts and building snow walls around their tents, they managed to enjoy some Christmas festivities.
“On Christmas Eve, several members of the SALSA Team participated in the annual Antarctic HF radio field camp Christmas caroling,” according to a statement by SALSA. “Although the fuzzy transmission made some of the radio calls very challenging to listen to, the SALSA team sang their own version of 'Feliz Navidad' accompanied by Al Gagnon on the ukulele."