Water Race at the Bottom of the World

The Russians proudly claim the honor of being the first nation to reach the subglacial waters of Lake Vostok buried deep beneath 12,000 feet of Antarctic ice. This feat has been ongoing for 20 years and on February 5 Russian scientists announced they had reached the underground lake, which has been isolated from the outside world for 14 million years.

Russian researchers at the Vostok station in Antarctica pose for a picture after reaching the subglacial Lake Vostok on Sunday. Scientists hold the sign reading “05.02.12, Vostok station, boreshaft 5gr, lake at depth 3,769.3 metres.”

Russian researchers at the Vostok station in Antarctica pose for a picture after reaching the subglacial Lake Vostok on Sunday. Scientists hold the sign reading “05.02.12, Vostok station, boreshaft 5gr, lake at depth 3,769.3 metres.”

Scientists expect to find microbes inhabiting the lake and not science fiction-inspired giant pirhanas or aliens. Finding life in this dark, pressurized underground lake would give hope to efforts to find some form of life on Jupiter’s icy moon Europa or Saturn’s satellite Enceladus.

But some environmentalists are concerned that the lubricants and antifreeze used to drill the deep hole could contaminate the pristine lake or at least the water samples that will be extracted later this year.

While the Russians reached an underground Antarctic lake first, the Americans and British are hot on their heels and would like to be the first to pull a sample from smaller but equally isolated lakes to see what lurks there.

The Russian team will have to wait until the next Antarctic summer season — beginning in December — before attempting to retrieve Lake Vostok water samples.

Map of Antarctica showing Lake Ellsworth (British), Lake Whillans (American) and Lake Vostok (Russian)

Map of Antarctica Showing Lake Ellsworth (British), Lake Whillans (American) and Lake Vostok (Russian)

The British team led by microbiologist Dr. David Pearce is drilling to reach Lake Ellsworth also in Antarctica. He says, “Antarctic subglacial lake systems are extremely unusual selection pressures. So they are high pressures. They are dark. They are isolated from the rest of the biosphere. They have unusual chemistry and oxygen concentrations that we’ve only been able to predict up until now.”

This year the British team moved its drilling equipment into the field and will begin working toward its scientific goal in the next field season.

When news about Lake Vostok began emerging last week, many UFO nuts and conspiracy theorists got very excited. Dr. Pearce says, “The questions coming up reflect the excitement and the ambition of the whole project.”

He isn’t holding his breath when it comes to discovering alien life or even something big. He says as a microbiologist studying the lake he expects to find microbes.

Upon touching the surface of the lake with the drill Russian team leader Valery Lukin likened this Antarctic endeavor to the epic race to the moon won by American scientists over the Soviets in 1969. The head of Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI) who oversaw the mission and announced its success on February 5 says, “I think it’s fair to compare this project to flying to the moon.”

University of Colorado geological sciences professor James White says Lake Vostok is the “crown jewel of lakes there” and he urges extreme caution about drilling into Antarctica’s 400 underground lakes. He says, “These are the last frontiers on the planet we are exploring, we really ought to be very careful.”

Geography of Lake Vostok, Antarctica

Geography of Lake Vostok, Antarctica

Meanwhile west of the South Pole American scientists are drilling above Lake Whillans.

Columbia University glaciologist Robin Bell says Lake Ellsworth and Lake Whillans are smaller and younger than Vostok, which she calls the big scientific prize.

And until a couple of years ago prevailing scientific wisdom held that these subglacial lakes were isolated relics millions of years old. Bell says, “At first we thought the lakes were crucibles, museums for ancient life that formed 35 million years ago and didn’t change.”

Now scientists studying glacier movement know that these lakes are not isolated and can change rapidly. They fill and drain like other lakes over long periods of time. Still, scientists believe that any lifeforms that call the lakes home could have spent millions of years locked below two miles of ice somewhere in the watery network. And that’s enough time for them to develop some interesting traits. In other words, there may be lifeforms down there that have never existed anywhere else on Earth.

And the race is on to be the first to bring up those microbial antiquities.

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1 Comment

  1. “Meanwhile west of the South Pole …” West of the South Pole? A rather extraordinary location indeed.

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