Thwarted Drillers Leave Antarctic Lake, and Leave Controversy Behind

By Patrick Morgan | February 10, 2011 5:42 pm

Antarctica’s Lake Vostok–and its potential scientific findings–remains cut off from the outside world for yet another year. Russian scientists spent the Antarctic summer drilling towards the water in the frozen-over Antarctic lake, but plummeting temperatures forced them to leave earlier this week, as their airplane’s hydraulic fluid was in danger of freezing.

The Russians may have flown off, but they left some controversy behind. To keep the 12,300-foot-deep borehole from filling with ice the researchers loaded it full of kerosene, and some Antarctic experts are worried that the chemicals will contaminate an otherwise pristine place.

The 6,200-square-mile lake is important for scientists because the iced-over waters have been isolated for over 14 million years. Biologists are excited to see whether it holds ancient microbes; climatologists are interested in the record held in its sediments; and geologists want to learn how such an isolated sub-glacial lake forms. And despite this year’s setback, researchers are surprisingly unfazed:

Valery Lukin, head of the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in St. Petersburg says, “There is no frustration,” and quoted Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian Arctic explorer: “The highest virtue of a polar explorer is the skill of waiting.” [Science]

Environmentalists, though, don’t share the researchers’ calm when it comes to the kerosene left behind.

“I can understand the Russians don’t want to start over — it’s a four kilometer ice sheet — but this is a unique place,” said Claire Christian of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based group focused on environmental issues on the Antarctic continent. “You have to use the most precaution that you can, and our main concern remains contamination.” [Discovery News]

The Russians didn’t make the kerosene-dumping decision on their own–members of the Antarctic treaty approved the idea. And it’s not the first time potentially hazardous chemicals were piped into Vostok holes: After a drill bit broke in 2007, the Russians piped anti-freeze down the hole in an attempt to retrieve the drill bit (they couldn’t, and eventually abandoned it).

Nobody knows whether these chemicals will affect the still-isolated lake, and we won’t find out for at least two years. Next December temperatures will be low enough for the Russian team to return, but if they stick to the plan they won’t get samples of lake water that year.

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. [New Scientist]

Related Content:
80beats: Russian Drill Ready to Reach Untouched Lake Vostok Beneath Antarctica
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

Image: Wikimedia Commons / Ningyou

  • Douglas Watts

    This is terrible reporting. The null hypothesis is that if you don’t know the impact, you shouldn’t do it.

  • scott

    Wow….OK, science and curiosity are great, but come on, leave some things alone. We obviously dont have the tech to do this properly right now, so instead we keep attempting and filling holes with toxic chemicals to make the next round easier…..

    Human curiosity is a double edged sword..people would still applaud a fantastic discovery, even if its dead, or the whole system destroyed. Like some rare creature never seen before..kill it and study it and hang it on the wall. Cool, case closed, lets publish a paper and win a prize!

    With so many problems facing the world, all these scientific minds should be focusing on other critical areas. Is it worth possibly destroying an ecosytem to determine whether some microbes might be able to live under the ice of some moon? To compare the environments is crazy anyway, we have no idea how, if anything, might have evolved elsewhere…regardless, its not worth destroying something to get some papers, numbers and speculations…how is that going to solve or help anything….anything going on in the world right now? Its nothing but a glossy spread in magazines that will be read, tossed and out and forgotten. “Honey, they found some weird bacteria living miles under the ice sheet”…”wow, cool”…”but its polluted now”…”oh, that’s too bad, did you Tivo Real Housewives?”…

    Find ways to control an acid ocean, create breeding grounds for the fish that eat med jellies (that have been messing up my beach vacations), enginer hardier plants for the Sahel, go to the rainforest to look for species there, develop crabon sinks in dense cities, control the trypanosome in Africa,..anything..besides pouring poison down a miles deep hole so you can get a sample of a possible microbe.

  • Paul Benson

    Idiots. In Northern Alberta, we drill for oil. Any redneck, roughneck up here can tell you that the lake water will not rise and flush out those holes. Anything they put down there, stays down there. Simple physics, but I guess the Russians and the rest of those so called “educated experts” forgot about gravity. As for how the chemicals will effect the enviroment in antartica, it’s the same as anywhere else: If you put something there that wasn’t there before then you have screwed it all up. My 12 yr old kid knows that. They should use thier degrees for toilet paper because without a liberal dose of good sense they are worthless. So much for great minds answering important questions.

  • JD Holloway

    Reminds me of this quote…

    “The space between the perceiver and the thing perceived… can be closed with a shout of recognition. One form of a shout is a shot. Nothing so completely verifies our perception of a thing as our killing of it.”


  • Eric

    LOL @ Paul, I too work the oil patch in Alberta. sorry to correct you, and your attempted thought… and please tell me you are no more senior than a roughneck, cuz if you are a derrickman who needs to mix weighted mud, or a driller who needs to understand the mechanics of whats happening down hole then you are most definitely not cut out for your position.

    ill keep it simple as i could rant on for quite a while about the errors in your statement. you mentioned gravity pulling down on a column of fluid and keeping it down, yes gravity is working on this comparatively small amount of the equation. Gravity is ALSO pulling down on the millions of tons of ice over that lake effectively squeezing it, but it has no where to relieve this pressure… poke a hole in the ice and viola! those people you just told to wipe their bums with their well earned degrees, are right.

    anyways, think of a juice box… squeeze it.. nothing happens… push the straw in the top while squeezing it… im sure you get the picture.

  • Laurel Goodrich

    RE unpleasant diatribe of Paul Benson who can’t resist throwing out insults and otherwise acting in such ignorant fashion.

    Thanks to Eric for putting the rude and true “idiot” in his place. I was about to say almost exactly the same thing until I scrolled down and saw your answer. It is saddening to see mere “smartalecky” red-neck rubbish being offered the same podium as educated discussion. This is the worrying weakness of unedited Internet media. BTW, just so the argument stays within the family, I too are from Alberta. I hope your and my comments will show that not all Albertans are so unpleasant.

  • Boris

    Really? Kerosene? REALLY????

  • Ken

    Kerosene is used to make hand cleaning goop also, but that doesn’t excuse the Russkies from pouring hundreds (or thousands?) of gallons of it in one of the last natural refuges on this small planet. Are these Russian scientists descendant from the earlier generation of their countrymen who seriously considered forcing their great northern rivers to run southward? Are they any relation to the Russian scientists who didn’t notice the Arial Sea drying up? …or didn’t mind it happening – as it’s only water, isn’t it? It will rain later, so what’s the big deal, eh comrade?


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