Scientists to Breach Buried Antarctic Lake, Untouched for Millions of Years

By Veronique Greenwood | February 1, 2012 1:01 pm

VostokThe outline of Lake Vostok beneath the ice, as seen from space.

After two decades of drilling through miles of Antarctic ice, Russian scientists are about to breach an underground lake that has not been exposed to the surface in more than 20 million years. Lake Vostok, as the body of water is called, is part of a chain of more than 200 lakes hidden beneath the ice, some of which were formed when Australia and Antarctica were still connected. Vostok will be the first one of all to be opened when the drill hits water next week.

Scientists believe that there may be life in the lake, as ice removed from the Vostok borehole has been found to contain bacteria. And since the subterranean lakes, kept liquid by heat from the Earth’s core, are similar to those found on moons Enceladus and Europa, scientists are excited to see what such inhabitants might be like. But the Russian team’s somewhat sloppy drilling methods have got a number of people worried about preserving the pristine lake from contamination, as Marc Kaufman reports in a great feature for the Washington Post.

The lake is known to have quite a bit of gas in it, like a carbonated soda, which could lead to a catastrophic geyser shooting up up out of the borehole when the drill finally hits water. If that happened, the lake could lose a quarter of its water and the weather above Antarctica could be altered, due to the sudden influx of water vapor into the air. Yeesh! Fingers crossed all goes well next week…especially given this tantalizing description of the water to be found there:

[Robin] Bell [of Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory], who has studied Vostok using satellite imaging and other above-surface instruments, said the lake is part of a complex system in which ice sheets bring in meltwater at their bottoms and later carry refrozen water elsewhere. She said that although the lake has not “felt the wind” in 20 million to 30 million years, the water in it is not as ancient — in the 100,000s to low millions of years old. The only ancient water present, she said, is probably in the sediment at the bottom.

For more, check out the feature and Kaufman’s stellar earlier coverage of the drilling.

Image courtesy of NASA

  • Daniel

    How come the Russians can just do that, especially given their – surprise! – “sloppy drilling methods?”

    Isn’t Antarctica protected by the UN or something like that?

  • Bobby LaVesh

    Don’t worry- if things go wrong they’ll blame US radar stations in Alaska. Just like with the Grunt mission.

  • Chris

    Next on Syfy
    “A Russian team drills deep into Antarctica opening up a lake which has not seen the light of day for 20 million years. They unleash an ancient pathogen which infect the team, but one member evades the quarantine and enters the population, infection millions. Will the daring team of American scientists be able to stop the plague in time or is humanity doomed?”

    Find out next week!
    If this gets made into a movie, I better get some credit.

  • Brian Too

    @3. Chris,

    I believe there was already a movie made about this. Using this movie as my sole “factual” source, I predict not an ancient pathogen, but an alien monster capable of replicating any living creature.

    Run away!

  • Ken

    @4, that was the Arctic, not the Antarctic. The Antarctic is Lovecraft’s shoggoths, which are alien monsters capable of eating any living creature.

  • yankeefan1a

    …when WILL Hollywood make that long awaited ’R’ rated version of At the Mountains of Madness. They drove del Toro off, allowing only a PG13 promise… the buffoons!

    Its still one of my all-time favorite books… well… stories.

  • Allan Douglas

    Yes, a giant, bloodthirsty, shape shifting slushy!

  • Ugo Dilibe

    oh, how i love science!!. its really like a movie, first australia and antartica were once connected?? now a lake that once existed as a “lake” is now frozen under ice? so the temperature in this region must have evolved overtime too??

  • Gary

    According to current weather forecast, the lows temps a night for the next few days are right around -50 degrees F., and the highs are in the -35 degree F, range.

    I wouldn’t be too worried about to much water vapor in the atmosphere; rather I’d more afraid that they might end up with the world’s largest Popsicle.

    Hopefully, Al Gore will stop by and put his tongue on it.

  • John T

    I think I saw this movie. Watch out for the giant Jurassic python that crawls out of the hole after the explosion!

  • floodmouse

    I think I already saw this movie, only it was giant parasitic worms instead of bacteria. Beware spoiler and I’ll give you the title below:

    Smilla’s Sense of Snow (awesome movie)

  • tiddas

    Oh yay, humans up to putting their nasty chemicals on every pristine place on earth. Climate-changing Antarctica. Resplendent mysteries be damned — it’s time to put Antarctica in a zoo.

  • TomWys

    Time to get serious! There was a UN “protocol” that discussed the proper means to enter the lake. My recommendation of a sterilized 30 Meter stainless steel hollow tube piercing the final 20 meters was rejected as unworkable ( I don’t know, and was not told, why).

    The present plan presents risk of contaminants going both ways – lake biota going up and surface oils and greases going into the water. The “geyser” weather altering scenario is a bit fanciful (and I’m being kind here).

    Chances of bringing up a “plague pathogen” are slim, but real nonetheless. Chances of contaminating the lake are high, and no one seems to care – a vestige of Lysenko perhaps???

    Still, the Vostok Ice cores have been a fantastically valuable addition to our climate knowledge, and the EPICA project patterned after it is first-rate, with no lake to pierce either.

    By the way, I don’t know whether the glycerine sent down to seal it a decade ago (when the last Ice-Core was brought to the surface) was sterile either! We may already have done the damage!!!

  • Quaker Oats

    @Ken, actually it was the Antarctic in both The Thing and Who Goes There? So yeah, almost.

  • apetra

    I hear the Call of Cthulu.

  • DirtCrashr

    You gotta mark your territory! Drill it baby!

  • deepelemblues

    Old Ones and Shoggoths should be left alone, Russians.

  • dave

    You’re very selfish tiddas. How much of the world do you require be kept pristine? What other requirements would you put on mankind?

  • Brendon Carr

    “Using this movie as my sole ‘factual’ source, I predict not an ancient pathogen, but an alien monster capable of replicating any living creature.”

    I predict the alien monster will take the form of a hot blonde with amazing knockers which will be on display in many inordinately unlikely seductions and “shocking” black-widow murders.

  • Oldfisherman

    If there were any creatures in the lake I would think that the oxygen level is very low if any by now but they may find some unwanted bacteria.

  • Wendy Raven

    Nullum beneficium est inpunitum!

  • Brian

    I bet all they find is water, and fossilized plants.

  • Pablo

    Fossilized plants would be very cool. The most interesting thing would be to see what ancient life forms and organisms, even bacteriums they could find in that lake. Also millions of years ago, oxygen levels in the atmosphere were actually larger than they are now, which resulted in larger animals (i.e. dinosaurs). In this case and in this area, a few ice ages and a few miles of icc layers later, it makes it more difficult to get to those fossil records. On land you can dig, but on ice you have to drill. I say there is a pretty good chance they’ll uncover some new species which were native to that area, and nicely preserved too. It would be cool to see what they might “dig up”. Its hydrophillic archeologist’s dream :-)

  • Chuck Pell

    Um, the oxygen level is actually very high. That’s part of why the Lake is so interesting. We may have contaminated Lake Vostok years ago with various petrochemicals (kerosene, among them) used in an attempt to prevent the earlier borehole from freezing. It should be noted that the older borehole does not stay straight: it becomes distorted as the ice through which it is drilled shears with time.
    Also, as a marine robot researcher, sending a non-tethered robot is a fool’s errand until we 1. see if the boreholes’s other end even stays open, 2. Take current readings at the opening, 3. Dangle a camera, 4. Perform a series of low-energy sonar scans, 5. Take samples at the opening, 6. Lower a cabled sonde (CTD: conductivity, temperature, depth), 7. Lower a sampler to a range of depths, returning a number of samples, 8. Lower a core dart to see what’s directly below, then 9. Allow a TETHERED ROV to explore some, to check out the underside of the ice, see if it can go near the bottom and take pictures there, etc. THEN: #10. Try releasing a non-tethered bot (but make sure to kiss it goodbye, first, because anything dunked into normal water, on a cable, has only a 50-50 chance of coming back, and a non-tethered bot? It’s more than likely to be lost – and quickly.

  • lonnie bauer

    and another big footprint left by scientists.

  • Ken

    @Quaker Oats, I was thinking of the 1951 movie, which was moved to the Arctic – I think the station had something to do with the DEW line. You’re right, Campbell’s and Carpenter’s versions were in Antarctica.


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