Tag: Lake Vostok

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

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

vostok

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).

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment

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.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment

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.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment

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:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment

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.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment
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