How Can You Tell If You've Hit an Antarctic Lake?

By Veronique Greenwood | February 7, 2012 10:47 am

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

Last week, as Russian scientists neared the end of two decades of drilling to reach Lake Vostok, an ancient Antarctic lake buried beneath miles of ice that hasn’t seen light in 20 million years, people around the world waited with bated breath for news. Yesterday the Russian state-run news agency announced that on Sunday, the drill had reached water, apparently the lake surface. Today, the project leader clarified that they need to verify that the water the drill struck was actually Lake Vostok. New Scientist has a tidy explanation of why it’s not necessarily obvious if you’ve hit a massive underground lake:

[Hitting water] suggests the lake has been breached, but the team are now checking the level of water in the borehole and readings from pressure sensors to confirm that the water did come from the lake and not a pocket of water in the ice above the lake. Ice temperatures rise as you go deeper into the ice sheet, and approach melting point just above the lake, so the fact that the team hit liquid water doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve reached the lake.

Within two days, there should be an announcement with more details.

Lake Vostok’s relative warmth (compared to the rest of Antarctica) and pristine state have scientists excited about discovering unusual microbial life there. As the New Scientist article points out, even once the lake is breached, we’ll have to wait until the next Antarctic summer for scientists to explore the buried lake. Read more about Lake Vostok here.

Image courtesy of NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment
  • lyllyth

    Great, we’ve officially contaminated it.

  • Tony Mach

    Shouldn’t the water be an an enormous pressure? Shouldn’t that be a danger, that the water burst upwards?

    @lyllyth:
    And how else do you suppose we would be able to find live there?

  • rabidmob

    What if it contaminates us?

  • scott

    The wisest thing we might do is stop trying to probe and drill every last spot and just leave some things alone.

  • Rebecca

    And discovering this rare and wonderful life will do what exactly? I’m with lyllyth, are we so blinded by our human need to explore and understand that we can’t just leave well enough alone? We look back to the explorers of the late 19th and early 20th century and try not to cringe thinking of the injustices they created in “exploring” their environment. In 100 years, what are they going to say about us?

  • Will

    Why wouldn’t we explore it? It’s amazing that we have the technological capabilities to do this. I hope they discover some extraordinary life way down there.

  • Jeff

    I’m amazed at the responses above effectively suggesting that not discovering new things that occur on our own planet is better than actually doing scientific research. The title is ‘discover’ magazine, people.

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