Drilling Subglacial Lake CECs in Antarctica

Antarctic landscape

In February 2020, NERC released a call as part of the Drilling Subglacial Lake CECs in Antarctica programme. This programme was a collaboration between NERC and Centro de Estudios Científicos (CECs) in Chile, to sample water and sediment from a subglacial lake in Antarctica newly discovered by CECs. NERC supported this joint activity through the British Antarctic Survey and its Partnership and Opportunities Strategic Funding Line. From the samples recovered, researchers would be able to address fundamental questions about the adaptation and persistence of life in extreme environments, and the future contribution of West Antarctica to sea-level.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic we are unable to commence the logistics required for the drilling on a timescale that allows CECs to continue to participate in this collaborative venture, and they have had to withdraw. Without CECs expert input, the capacity to drill and collect samples would be compromised. Therefore, unfortunately, this programme has had to be stopped (July 2021). It is with disappointment we cannot continue this exciting programme and support the research planned, but the challenges of working in Antarctica during the global pandemic have meant we have had no other option. The scientific drivers for this programme remain important and we will explore over the next two years alternative approaches for a programme in this area.

Updated July 2021.

Announcement of Opportunity: Drilling Subglacial Lake CECs in Antarctica

Closing date: 7 May

14 Feb 2020

Proposals are invited for a new Research Programme that, through joint collaboration between the UK and Centro de Estudios Científicos in Chile, provides the opportunity to gain access to water and lake bed sediment samples from Subglacial Lake CECs, Antarctica.

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Over the last few decades more than four hundred lakes have been discovered under the Antarctic ice sheet. Many are hidden beneath several kilometres of ice and have been isolated for tens of millions of years. They represent one of the most inaccessible and intriguing environments on the planet and potentially hold very valuable records of changes in the Earth system and new forms of life.

Several attempts to drill into subglacial lakes have been undertaken. Russian drillers have obtained samples of re-frozen water from Lake Vostok, but their methodology means that their samples are contaminated and their results have been debated. Subglacial Lake Whillans was drilled by a US consortium but this lake is special in that it is very shallow (5 feet) and is linked directly to the open ocean and so it cannot be used to answer the key questions of glacial history and biology.

More recently, Chilean scientists from CECs identified a new subglacial lake named Subglacial Lake CECs. This lake has since been investigated by CECs and British Antarctic Survey teams from the surface using radar and seismic techniques. These investigations have revealed that the lake presents a relatively accessible opportunity for valuable exploration due to the relatively thin ice cover (2·6km), proximity to key logistical support (at Union Glacier) and confirmed lake-bed sediments.

Building upon on a long, successful track-record of hot-water drilling and incorporating lessons learnt from previous drilling campaigns, £3 million of funding is now available (through this research programme) to enable / support the UK community to access and analyse Subglacial Lake CECs water and lake bed samples.


2020 - 2024

Can I apply for a grant?

A call for proposals is open until 23 April 2020. Please see the Announcement of Opportunity for details.


The programme has a budget of £3 million.