The 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.
Virions from a smallpox vaccine
What’s the News: Global health officials are expected to decide whether to destroy the world’s last caches of smallpox at the 64th World Health Assembly this week. The disease was declared eradicated by the World Health Organization in 1979, but two small stores of the virus remain: one at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and one in a Russian government lab.
Now, public health officials are divided on how to ensure that the disease stays eradicated. Some say our best bet is to keep the remaining samples of the virus safe and continue to study them, then destroy them at a later date; others say the safest course is to destroy them now, once and for all.
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:
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.
Yesterday, the Russian space agency Roscosmos confirmed news from last week that they are pursuing plans to spend $2 billion cleaning up space debris. In a striking contrast to the secrecy that once cloaked space programs, the confirmation came via an announcement on Roscosmos’s official Facebook page:
Russia will build a special orbital pod that would sweep up satellite debris from space around the Earth.The cleaning satellite would work on nuclear power and would be capable to work up to 15 years. Energia said in a statement that the company would complete the cleaning satellite assembly by 2020 and test the device no later than in 2023.
Sunday marked the opening of the worldwide tiger summit, which brought together high-level representatives from the 13 tiger-habitat countries, including Russia and China, to discuss the best plan to save the tigers. The meeting goes through Wednesday.
Only about 3,200 tigers remain in the wild, and without help experts say populations will start to go extinct in less than 20 years.
“Here’s a species that’s literally on the brink of extinction,” said Jim Leape, director general of conservation group WWF. “This is the first time that world leaders have come together to focus on saving a single species, and this is a unique opportunity to mobilise the political will that’s required in saving the tiger.” [BBC News]
The working plan includes provisions to decrease poaching and smuggling of the tigers and calls for more protected habitats. Researchers say that if tigers are left alone and provided with enough habitat and prey, the population could double in 12 years.
Russian company Orbital Technologies has announced its plans to build a commercial space station (to be named the commercial space station, if you can believe that), which would also serve as a “space-hotel” for visiting tourists. The company claims the venture will launch in 2016.
“Once launched and operational, the CSS will provide a unique destination for commercial, state and private spaceflight exploration missions,” said Sergey Kostenko, chief executive of Orbital Technologies. [Los Angeles Times]
The station will be able to host up to seven passengers in its homey capsule, free of extraneous scientific instruments and pesky astronauts and cosmonauts. It will be built by RSC Energia, the same company that builds the Soyuz passenger capsules and the Progress cargo ships used by the Russian space agency. It will follow the same orbit as the International Space Station, and will be able to dock with shuttles from around the world.
Last week, we described the plight of the Russian Pavlovsk Experimental Station: Plans for a housing complex threaten some 5,000 rare plants, including varieties found nowhere else on the planet. A court judgment last week meant that only the president or prime minister could save the plants, which scientists said would take years to relocate. Now government telegrams and a presidential tweet hint that the plants might have a chance.
Twitter campaigns and a petition led by The Global Crop Diversity Trust appear to have caught the attention of the Russian Civic Chamber which monitors parliament and the government. As The Guardian reports, the Civic Chamber sent a telegram to President Dimitry Medvedev to request a protective appeal and Medvedev updated the world via Twitter:
[N]umerous supporters of the research station have made their feelings felt on Twitter (using the #pavlovsk hashtag). On Friday, following a week of lobbying Medvedev tweeted back: “Received the Civic Chamber’s appeal over the Pavlov Experimental Station. Gave the instruction for this issue to be scrutinised.” [The Guardian]
The outcome of the Medvedev-ordered investigation is far from certain, but advocates for the botanical gene bank have promised to keep up the pressure and say they hope Pavlovsk station will yet be saved. For all the details on the station and its valuable collection, check out Andrew Moseman’s previous 80beats post.
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Image: Wikimedia Commons (N.I. Vavilov, institute founder)
The Pavlovsk Experimental Station, near St. Petersburg, Russia, was founded in the 1920s. About 90 percent of the plants grown there occur nowhere else, making the collection an island of agricultural biodiversity. And the station soon may be knocked over to make way for a housing development.
The station’s operators at the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry lost a court ruling this week, so the land upon which all those plants sit will be given to the Russian Housing Development Foundation. The plant scientists bought themselves an extra month with an instant appeal, but the situation looks grim.
“We expected to lose,” agrees Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust in Rome, who has spent months campaigning against the station’s destruction. “Our real hope lies with President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin, who could both override the decision of the courts. At least the higher appeal will give us time to mobilize more people and hopefully get through the gates of the Kremlin,” he adds [Nature].
The fires in western Russia continue to burn. Though the overall area now ablaze has shrunk, the number of individual fires has actually risen today. The death rate in Moscow has doubled, and Russia is racing to stop the flames from spreading to areas still affected by radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster a quarter-century ago.
While firefighting goes on, attention turns to the “why?” Russia‘s fire explosion has people wondering if there’s a bigger reason behind it. The topic seems particularly urgent because another major natural disaster is happening not so far away: in northern Pakistan, where exceptionally heavy monsoon rains have caused crushing floods. The big question–whether global warming is responsible–is still unanswered, but scientists do agree that a large weather pattern links the events.
According to meteorologists monitoring the atmosphere above the northern hemisphere, unusual holding patterns in the jet stream are to blame. As a result, weather systems sat still. Temperatures rocketed and rainfall reached extremes [New Scientist].
You’ve probably seen diagrams of the jet stream on weather charts, where a thick band represents its air currents that surge from west to east. However, New Scientist reports, a “blocking event” caused by west-pushing Rossby waves has slowed the jet stream’s flow. This happens from time to time, and it sets the stage for extreme conditions when weather systems hover over the same area.