Fragile subglacial environments get formal protection as a consequence of Bristol research
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Bristol
Unit of AssessmentGeography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology
Summary Impact TypeEnvironmental
Research Subject Area(s)
Earth Sciences: Geology, Physical Geography and Environmental Geoscience
Engineering: Geomatic Engineering
Summary of the impact
As research led by Professor Martin Siegert at the University of Bristol
between 2001 and 2006 has shown, a complex, dynamic and living world
exists beneath the thick ice sheets of Antarctica. These pristine aquatic
environments are likely to be subject to international exploration and
study for decades to come. Siegert and his team not only furthered
scientific understanding of subglacial lake systems but also highlighted
the potential damage to these environments during direct exploration and
demonstrated the need for a formal code of conduct to protect them from
contamination or undue disturbance during such work. The research was
instrumental in achieving the adoption by the Antarctic Treaty
Consultative Meeting in 2011 of a code of conduct presented by the
Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research. The code, which is binding on
the 50 nations that are signatories to the Treaty, identifies subglacial
environments as being of special scientific interest and provides clear
guidance to scientists on accessing these fragile ecosystems responsibly.
Prior to this agreement, given that traditional deep-ice drilling
techniques involve kerosene-based antifreezes, the ecosystems within
subglacial lakes and their downstream catchments were in danger of being
As a consequence of his research on subglacial lakes and in recognition
of the impact of his work, Siegert was awarded the 2013 Martha T. Muse
Prize by the Tinker Foundation (value $100,000).
Nature of research findings and specific contributions:
Martin Siegert, Professor of Geosciences at the University of Bristol,
has led multidisciplinary research programmes investigating the subglacial
lakes of Antarctica and involving collaborations with researchers from
around the world. Siegert's expertise is in glaciology and geophysics, and
programmes he directed were crucial in demonstrating the need for a code
of conduct when exploring subglacial aquatic environments. The specific
contributions of Siegert and the other key researchers are provided below.
Antarctic subglacial lakes were first regarded as coupled physical,
biological and chemical systems following an international collaboration
on Lake Vostok in 2001 (Output ). Samples were taken from the underside
of the sheet ice above Lake Vostok, which consisted of ice refrozen from
lake water. The samples showed the lake to be a viable habitat for
microbial life, and allowed inferences to be drawn about the chemistry of
the lake water.
In Output , Siegert led the overall work and provided expertise in the
physical processes component of the research. Martyn Tranter, Professor of
Geography at the University of Bristol, provided expertise in terms of the
chemical processes. A. Salamatin (Kazan State University, Russia) and J.R.
Petit (The National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), France)
contributed expertise on the physical environment. J.C. Priscu (Montana
State University, USA) and J.C. Ellis-Evans (British Antarctic Survey) led
the biological component of the research.
In 2003, Siegert and Tranter further developed the 2001 research at Lake
Vostok to reveal the likely hydrochemical conditions experienced in the
lake (Output ). The authors noted that the conclusion that Lake Vostok
supported microbial life was highly applicable to other subglacial lakes.
The size and distribution of the 145 known Antarctic subglacial lakes was
compiled in 2005 (Output ). This inventory of subglacial lakes
demonstrated their presence across the bulk of the Antarctic continent, in
both East and West Antarctica.
For Output , Siegert used his expertise in analysing geophysical data
to determine the locations of subglacial lakes to create the inventory of
these lakes in Antarctica. The other authors provided data that
contributed to the inventory, but the compilation was led by Siegert. The
inventory was updated in 2012, and now contains information on 379
subglacial lakes (Wright and Siegert, 2012 Antarctic Science, 24, 659-664,
In 2006, satellite observations of the ice surface sinking and lifting
over time were shown to relate to the locations of a series of subglacial
lakes at the centre of the East Antarctic ice sheet (Output ). Siegert
related these ice-sheet surface elevation changes to rapid discharge from
a subglacial lake; the distance between the discharging lake and the
receiving lake was over 200 km. This work revealed for the first time an
active subglacial hydrology in Antarctica and showed how subglacial lakes
may be connected rather than isolated. This insight provided evidence that
contamination of one lake from in situ exploration would risk
contamination of an entire drainage system.
In Output , D.J. Wingham (University College London) used satellite
observations to identify the ice surface changes central to this output.
However, Siegert provided the subglacial context for the changes based on
his geophysical and glaciological knowledge. It was this information that
ultimately led to the impact.
The research summarised above was funded by Natural Environment Research
Council (NERC) Grant NER/A/S/2000/01144 (Modelling the physical and
chemical dynamics of Antarctic subglacial lakes) [Outputs 1-3] and by the
NERC Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling [Output 4].
References to the research
 Siegert, M.J., Ellis-Evans, J.C., Tranter, M., Mayer, C., Petit,
J.-R., Salamatin, A. and Priscu, J.C. Physical, chemical and biological
processes in Lake Vostok and other Antarctic subglacial lakes. Nature,
414, 603-609. (2001).
Citations* = 94
 Siegert, M.J., Tranter, M., Ellis-Evans, C.J., Priscu, J.C. and
Lyons, W.B. The hydrochemistry of Lake Vostok and the potential for life
in Antarctic subglacial lakes. Hydrological Processes, 17,
Citations = 35*
 Siegert, M.J., Carter, S., Tabacco, I., Popov, S. and Blankenship, D.
A revised inventory of Antarctic subglacial lakes. Antarctic Science,
17 (3), 453-460. (2005).
Citations = 114*
 Wingham, D.J., Siegert, M.J., Shepherd, A.P. and Muir, A.S. Rapid
discharge connects Antarctic subglacial lakes. Nature, 440,
Citations = 144*
*Citations as of 10th October 2013 on ResearcherID
Research grants referred to:
Modelling the physical and chemical dynamics of Antarctic subglacial
lakes. Funded by the NERC (November 2001 for 3 years). £140,588.
NER/A/S/2000/01144. PI: Martin Siegert.
Centre for Polar Observation & Modelling. Funded by the NERC
(December 2000 for 5 years, extended to 2 further years). £2,139,203 for
the first 5 years, plus £1M for a two-year extension. PIs: D.J. Wingham,
J.A. Dowdeswell, J.C.R. Hunt, J.L. Bamber, D.L. Feltham, S.W. Laxon and
Details of the impact
Policy and international relations with respect to Antarctica are
regulated by the Antarctic Treaty System, and new policies are agreed by
the 50 signatory nations at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings
(ATCM). Matters relating to science are recommended to the ATCM by the
Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR).
Antarctic subglacial aquatic environments are continent-wide features
beneath thick ice sheets that are of significant scientific interest and
will likely be a major focus for international exploration and study for
decades to come. To advance knowledge of these environments, it is
necessary to carry out direct measurement and sampling. This must be done
in a manner that does not adversely affect these pristine and ancient
systems. Prior to 2011, access to subglacial environments had been
achieved by using either hot-water drilling or ice coring. In those
experiments little consideration was given to subglacial lakes as unspoilt
environments and viable but fragile ecosystems (Evidence source [a]). The
research conducted by Siegert and his colleagues furthered scientific
understanding of subglacial systems in Antarctica and demonstrated the
need for a code of conduct when exploring them.
Nature of the impact:
Siegert's research demonstrated that subglacial lakes are viable habitats
for microbial life [1, 2], that they are widespread across the Antarctic
continent  and that they can be connected hydrologically across large
distances in even the most stable parts of the central East Antarctic ice
sheet . In combination, the work reveals a large, complex, dynamic,
living subglacial environment.
"These papers were crucial in improving our understanding of the
sub-glacial system of Antarctica as a pristine, potentially fragile
ecosystem that required formalised protection during direct measurement
and sampling," said Dr Michael Sparrow [a], Executive Director of SCAR.
The US National Academy of Sciences (US-NAS) undertook an independent
assessment of the exploration of subglacial aquatic environments with the
intention of defining a set of standards for responsible exploration of
these ecosystems. The report, published in 2007, cites Siegert's research
heavily (13 papers by Siegert were referenced in the text 57 times) [b].
It even uses a figure from Siegert et al.  as its cover page.
However, despite the scientific influence of this report, it was not
initially a major influence on policy decisions [a].
As a result of the US-NAS report, SCAR convened an Action Group (which
consulted with subglacial aquatic environment specialists from around the
globe and from a wide range of disciplines) to develop a formal code of
conduct for SCAR members, but also for use by members of the Antarctic
Treaty. The code of conduct was heavily influenced by the US-NAS report as
well as by reports from the SCAR Subglacial Antarctic Lake Environments
Scientific Research Program [c, pg 3], of which Siegert is a contributing
"Again, Siegert's work was instrumental in forming SCAR's judgement on
how and why subglacial environments can be protected," said Sparrow [a].
In June 2011, at the XXXIV ATCM in Buenos Aires, a Code of Conduct on the
exploration and research of subglacial aquatic environments was formally
adopted [a, c], binding Antarctic Treaty members to undertaking such work
in a clearly defined and responsible manner.
In December 2012, Siegert led a NERC-funded* UK team to undertake the
first direct measurement and sampling of a subglacial lake — Lake
Ellsworth in West Antarctica. The work was fully compliant with the code
of conduct, and the research plan was commented on favourably by the ATCM
and published in the peer-reviewed literature (Siegert et al., Clean
access, measurement and sampling of Ellsworth Subglacial Lake. Reviews of
Geophysics, 50, RG1003, doi:10.1029/2011RG000361, 2012). While the
fieldwork was unsuccessful this time, plans are currently underway to
undertake a second attempt in full accordance with the Code of Conduct.
For his innovative research on Antarctic subglacial lakes, and
recognition of the impact it has had, Siegert was awarded the 2013 Martha
T. Muse Prize by the Tinker Foundation (http://www.museprize.org/news.html).
*Direct measurement and sampling of Subglacial Lake Ellsworth: a
multidisciplinary investigation of life in extreme environments and ice
sheet history. Funded by the NERC (1 October 2009 for 5 years). A
consortium Grant, involving the University of Bristol, the British
Antarctic Survey, the National Oceanography Centre, Durham University,
the University of Edinburgh and Aberdeen University. Total award:
£7,925,275 (£6,244,620 FEC). PI: Martin Siegert.
Sources to corroborate the impact
[a] Sparrow, M. (Executive Director, SCAR). Letter to M. Siegert. 5th
[b] National Research Council (2007) Exploration of Antarctic
Subglacial Aquatic Environments: Environmental and Scientific
Stewardship. Committee on the Principles of Environmental
Stewardship for the Exploration and Study of Subglacial Environments,
Polar Research Board, Division of Earth and Life Sciences. National
Research Council of the National Academies. The National Academies Press
Washington, D.C. 152pp. [http://www.nap.edu/catalog/11886.html]
[c] SCAR's code of conduct for the exploration and research of
subglacial aquatic environments. Agenda item CEP 8c, paper IP33.
Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, Buenos Aires, 20th June
— 1st July 2011.