Russian Drill Ready to Reach Untouched Lake Vostok Beneath Antarctica

By Andrew Moseman | January 7, 2011 4:37 pm

At the bottom of the ice sheet at the bottom of the world lies one of the most pristine and tantalizing places on the Earth—a lake beneath Antarctica that has been isolated for millions of years. Soon, humans will get a glimpse of Lake Vostok.

Since 1990, the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute [AARI] in St Petersberg in Russia has been drilling through the ice to reach the lake, but fears of contamination of the ecosystem in the lake have stopped the process multiple times, most notably in 1998 when the drills were turned off for almost eight years. Now, the team has satisfied the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat, which safeguards the continent’s environment, that it’s come up with a technique to sample the lake without contaminating it. [Wired]

At about 6,200 square miles, Vostok is nearly the size of Lake Ontario. Its temperature actually remains a few degrees below freezing, but the pressure on the water allows it to stay in liquid form. It’s the isolation, though, that has everyone so excited. There are more than 150 lakes beneath the Antarctic glaciers, but Vostok is the only one that’s entirely cut off.

It’s impossible to say what kind of life could have evolved in its hyper-oxygenated waters (with 50 times the oxygen content of most lakes on the surface). That’s why it has taken so long for Russia to get permission to drill down any further. Before drill teams enter Vostok, they need to be as sure as they can be about avoiding contamination.

The AARI’s Valery Lukin says they have devised a clever method for sampling the lake without contaminating it. “Once the lake is reached, the water pressure will push the working body and the drilling fluid upwards in the borehole, and then freeze again,” Lukin says. The following season, the team will go back to bore in that frozen water, take the sample out and analyse its contents. “The Russians really did a good job in giving answers to all the fears raised that their actions would contaminate this unexplored environment,” says Manfred Reinke, head of the ATS. [New Scientist]

The Russians could reach the lake as early as late January.

Lake Vostok is another reminder that Antarctica is not the homogeneous, monotonous mass of ice that it sometimes seems from afar. Beneath it surface there are also mountains as tall as the Alps completely buried in ice, and on its surface there are “blood falls” that gush forth iron-rich liquid, the handiwork of hardy bacterial colonies. One can only hope there are extremophile bacteria that endured in the extreme environment of Lake Vostok, ready to be discovered.

Related content:
80beats: Study: Antarctica’s “Achilles’ Heel” Ice Sheet Once Collapsed
80beats: NASA Finds Shrimp Where No Advanced Life Should Be: 600 Feet Beneath Antarctic Ice
80beats: Antarctica Was Oasis for Life During “Great Dying” 250 Million Years Ago
80beats: Antarctica’s “Blood Falls” Shows How Aliens Might Live on Ice Worlds

Image: NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment
  • Chris

    Loke Vostok?
    This is really cool. I just hope they don’t release a deadly disease.

  • http://discovermagazine.com Andrew Moseman

    I hope so too. “Loke” fixed.

  • Brian Too

    In breaking news, the Russians discover that Lake Vostok is filled with vodka. Russian vodka! On that basis Russia claims Lake Vostok as sovereign Russian territory.

    Thus began the great Antarctic vodka shooter war!

  • Prof.Pedant

    “hyper-oxygenated waters”?

    I wonder what there might be in the way of multi-cellular life forms…..

  • Durant S.

    I sincerely hope that the Russians don’t contaminate this lake that represents the last frontier on planet Earth !

  • Ryan

    If the lake is isolated, and there is something that uses oxygen in the water, then wouldn’t the lake quickly become depleted of oxygen? Am I missing something basic here?

  • M

    Interesting, though forcing a sample up against graviuty and allowing it to freeze bbefore extracting it will only get crystal clear water with no life, organics or anything. A far better strategy would be to make a small hole in the lake and measure its movement.

    Movement could mean life whereas their crystal clear water = waste of time.

  • Jumblepudding

    blind giant penguins, please let there be blind giant penguins.

  • Matt B.

    Blind giant penguins with green tentacles. Call Scott of the Antarctic!

  • MT-LA

    @Ryan: I think you’re missing conservation of mass. What ever is in that lake is staying in there. If there is life, then the oxygen would be consumed and tied up into organic molecules, but it wouldn’t be depleted. My question is: IF there is life in that lake, what are they using for their energy source? No solar input and no geothermal.

  • Ryan

    Sorry if I didn’t explain myself well. The article says,

    “It’s impossible to say what kind of life could have evolved in its hyper-oxygenated waters (with 50 times the oxygen content of most lakes on the surface).”

    I thought the article was implying that this life would be aerobic. The oxygen would be removed from the water over time and no longer be hyper-oxygenated? That is what I was questioning.

  • Paulo

    That’s what Cthulhu was talking about in my dreams! Nice!

  • michele romeo

    I think the Russians just ruined this entire project ….they said alll of things would be done in order to preserve this pristine and uncotaminated by humans, environment, but they abandoned the project and left the hole filled with kerosene! We just ruined another part of this Mother Earth…..Lake Vostok is NOT for us to see…….until all the ice melts, that is.

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