Graphic: The Meter-by-Meter Account of How Russian Scientists Got to Lake Vostok

By Veronique Greenwood | February 14, 2012 12:29 pm


Antarctic lake, ho! Nearly twenty years ago Russian scientists began drilling through the over two miles of ice above Lake Vostok, a gigantic underground lake in Antarctica that hasn’t seen the surface in 20 million years. The pristine lake was reached last week, prompting a flurry of discussion among scientists and members of the media about how the Russian team could keep from contaminating it and whether unusual microbial life would be found there. Kept warm and liquid by heat from the center of the Earth, Lake Vostok, the largest in a chain of about 200 underground (or under-ice) lakes, is similar to the oceans supposed to exist below the surface on moons Enceladus and Europa, which makes this an exciting time to be an astrobiologist. Or, really, anyone interested in the origins of life.

It can be hard to reconstruct in your head the long, drawn-out process of reaching the lake when poring over the recent news stories on this topic. But a nice graphic put together by Nature News gives a blow-by-blow: In 1990, scientists began drilling at Vostok Station, the Russians’ Antarctic base, returning every summer to continue the task. At first they were drilling to remove ice cores that would provide data on climate, but by the mid-1990s, scientists had realized that a huge lake was deep below the surface. To protect the lake from contamination by the drilling fluids, which include kerosene, the team agreed they would melt the last bit of ice using a thermal probe instead of the drill (we don’t know yet if they did in fact follow the plan). As they got deeper into the ice, the drill became stuck, but trying another route met with success on February 5th.

[via Nature News]

Image courtesy of Nature News, created from Lukin, V. & Bulat, S. Geophys. Monogr. Ser. 192, 187–197 (2011).

  • John

    Were there any concerns about what sort of microbial life could have been sealed off there?

  • Iain

    Nah, not likely to create a new plague, maybe called ‘white death?
    Yet the astro-biologists are excited. Why? Life didn’t start here in this under ice lake, if it exists, it evolved after becoming trapped in the ecosystem.

  • Bob Myers

    Any pronouncements about what microbial
    life exists or not, whether it started here or
    not, whether it is carbon based or not
    closes my mind to what will probably
    be a whole new wold of life and hopefully
    a window into Europa
    That was the world Arthur C Clarke warned
    Us to protect

  • Messier Tidy Upper

    Now that’s a hole!

    Not sure if you can call it much of a lake as we know them but definitely a hole! :-)

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Nice update! I didn’t know about the silicone plug or that the kerosene could harbor bacteria, but it doesn’t seem to matter much. (Except for extracting pristine samples.)

    @ John:

    What type of concerns? They do want to preserve the ecology as much as possible.

    @ Iain:

    The Nature article explains. ““They’re not actually at the extremes of pressure and temperature, but they are limited in nutrients and energy,” says Kennicutt. If life is eventually confirmed to reside in these inhospitable places, “the question is how microbes make a living down there”.”

    Extreme life, where and how it can survive et cetera, is interesting to find out about habitability.


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