Scientist who came in from the cold

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THE trip was crucial to scientific research in one of the world's most fragile landscapes.

For two months, Dr Neil Ross would probe the surface of West Antarctica's frozen ice sheet with his specialised radar equipment, hoping to unravel the secrets of the hidden world below – a landscape of mountains, lakes, rivers and waterfalls, perhaps harbouring basic forms of life, none of them ever seen before.

He'd packed all the essentials: the tent, the sleeping bag, the highly technical equipment, endless layers of clothes and, of course, that crucial ingredient for a trip to the Antarctic – some lime pickle.

"It was absolutely essential," he laughs between coughs and splutters – the remnants of a cold picked up, ironically, upon his return from the frozen south. "The food choices aren't great when you're there. You need a bit of lime pickle to give everything a bit of taste.

"There were only four meals: chilli con carne, beef stroganoff – which tasted exactly the same as the chilli – lamb pilaf and something else which I have somehow erased from my memory probably because it was so awful," he grins, before adding, "oh yes, some kind of chicken pasta thing.

"It was okay, but lime pickle on the side definitely helped."

Edinburgh University researcher Dr Ross, 29, has just returned home to the Capital after his latest venture camping out on the frozen basement of the world, carrying out exploration work aimed at charting the landscape of a lake buried beneath the ice cap for millions of years.

It was the end of the first phase of a massive study of Lake Ellsworth in West Antarctica – a body of water the size of Lake Windermere, buried underneath three kilometres of ice, which could shed new light on the evolution of life.

But fascinating and scientifically groundbreaking as his own work was, Dr Ross's trip might have been in vain if vital funding for the next stage – actually digging down beneath the ice and sampling the water and the rocks below – failed to come through.

Ten years of research hung in the balance until yesterday, when a team led by Edinburgh University's Professor Martin Siegert finally learned that they had received the vital financial backing to allow work to continue on one of the most ambitious polar projects ever.

It's hoped the next stage of the team's research will eventually yield vital clues about life on Earth, climate change and future sea level rise. And it might even give a fascinating insight into the extraterrestrial environment of Europa – one of Jupiter's icy moons.

The Natural Environment Research Council (Nerc) yesterday confirmed it was to fund a consortium of researchers from nine UK universities, the British Antarctic Survey and the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, in a project described as pushing the "final frontiers" of polar exploration.

During the next five years the researchers will use the results of Dr Ross's latest expedition as a basis for acquiring the equipment necessary and developing the next stage of research.

And by 2012-13 they expect to be ready to go "deep field" into West Antarctica to sample water from the lake in search of tiny life forms, and to extract sediment from the lake bed.

The research could solve the mystery of how the climate has changed over many millennia – and predict how it might evolve in the future.

Consortium leader Prof Siegert, head of Geosciences at Edinburgh University, says news of the funding is a "benchmark in polar exploration".

"Our team will be the first to explore this ancient lake. It is a dark, cold place that has been sealed from the outside world and it's likely to contain unique forms of life.

"We hope to discover more about how life can exist in extreme environments and how Antarctica has changed in the past – which might help us understand more about other places on Earth."

No-one could be more pleased at the funding news than Dr Ross. After all, he's already spent a total of five months over two years in the ice fields of Antarctica working on the Lake Ellsworth project – work he never wanted to see placed in limbo because of money troubles.

"Of course, the main aim of the project is to explore the lake, but to do that you have to map the area and find out how big and how deep it is," explains Dr Ross, a research assistant at the School of Geosciences.

He travelled to Antarctica last winter to begin the geophysical survey of the area. The results revealed the outline of the lake, its depth and details of sediments – vital indicators of the lake's scientific potential for further exploration.

His return trip, from late November until the middle of last month, was aimed at checking movements in the area over the year and finishing the task.

But first he had to find the equipment and supplies the team had left behind 12 months earlier. . .

"It does sound a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack, but it was really quite straightforward," he shrugs. "We were lucky because there'd only been around 80cm of snow since we left last year – and we had GPS. The only trouble then was digging it all out."

That took six hours of hard labour with British Antarctic Survey field assistant Dave Routledge. Incredibly, despite lying in "deep freeze" for a year, the pair found their skidoos started at the fourth or fifth attempt.

The pair pitched their tent on Boxing Day last year and set about a two-month study in freezing temperatures, checking and analysing the marker poles left behind during last year's expedition for signs of movement and change.

"The movement of the poles gave us an idea of the direction of the ice and the speed," he explains. "The main thrust of the job is finding out where the best place might be to actually drill down. The idea then would be to use a hot water drill, using water from under the surface, heating it up and then melting the ice sheet so as to avoid any potential contamination."

While back home in Edinburgh, crowds thronged the city to celebrate the New Year, Dr Ross and his team-mate celebrated with a rehydrated meal, some of that lime pickle and a dram of Laphroaig.

But there was no time to waste: their days would begin with an early morning check-in with the BAS base at Rothera – the closest "civilisation" some three hours away in a Twin Otter plane – before travelling up to 20km from their tiny base to continue their research, then returning at around 11pm.

"Some days we did 100km on the skidoos," recalls Dr Ross, who was raised in Gullane and educated at North Berwick High School before studying geography at St Andrews University. "It might look very flat, but some areas were covered with sastrugi – areas where the wind has scarred the snow's surface and has left it very, very hard."

Now home in Edinburgh, Dr Ross is busy analysing the research, which will be handed over to the Ellsworth team for their next stage of exploration – unravelling exactly what lies beneath thousands of years and around 3.2km of ice.

But the unique, unspoiled and fragile beauty of the ice cap – and the possibility that beneath its frozen layers lies a hidden world of mountains, rivers and lakes – has left an indelible mark.

"You have to pinch yourself when you're there," he nods. "It is very, very special. It's incredible."

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THERE are more than 145 subglacial lakes beneath the Antarctic ice sheet.

Each has been isolated from the surface for thousands of years – and each has its unique environment and biological make-up.

For life to survive, it must be capable of withstanding diverse and challenging conditions – total darkness, low nutrient levels, high water pressures and isolation from the atmosphere.

Drilling and sampling involves careful mapping of the areas before introducing specialised equipment to remove samples without contaminating the lake and the samples.

It is a process which scientists believe creates a blueprint for the exploration of planets and satellites, such as Europa, one of Jupiter's frozen moons.

It is hoped exploring subglacial lakes can help scientists understand key global issues such as life in extreme environments and climate change.

David Blake, who is head of technology and engineering at the British Antarctic Survey and is involved in the Ellsworth project, says: "This project is a great scientific challenge and the technology required to drill three kilometres through the ice without contaminating the lake is equally ambitious.

"We really are at the frontiers of scientific exploration."