Lake Vostok: “Admit it, it sounds just like a thousand horror-movie setups.”

That was the Professor’s not entirely inaccurate comment this time last year, when a Russian team came up just short in their attempt to reach Lake Vostok – the largest sub-glacial freshwater lake on Earth.

The project to drill down to the lake, which covers 16 square kilometres and has been sealed under approximately 3,750m of ice in the Antarctic for around 15 million years, began over 20 years ago.

The Russian team returned to the drill site during the recent Antartic summer and, as the update to the NewScientist report notes

Russian scientists have now confirmed that they have indeed breached Lake Vostok. It is the first time one of Antarctica’s subglacial lakes has been penetrated. According to an official statement [in Russian], the drill entered the lake at 20.25 Moscow time on 5 February. Thirty to forty metres of water rose into the borehole, confirming that the drill had reached the lake itself and not a small pocket of liquid water above the lake surface.

The BBC’s spaceman Jonathan Amos has a quote from the Russian team leader

“This fills my soul with joy,” said Valery Lukin, from Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI) in St Petersburg, which has been overseeing the project,

“This will give us the possibility to biologically evaluate the evolution of living organisms… because those organisms spent a long time without contact with the atmosphere, without sunlight,” he was quoted as saying in a translation of national media reports by BBC Monitoring.

And he adds

The British Antarctic Survey (Bas) is hoping to begin its effort to drill into Lake Ellsworth in West Antarctica later this year. An American crew is targeting Lake Whillans, also in the West.

“It is an important milestone that has been completed and a major achievement for the Russians because they’ve been working on this for years,” Professor Martin Siegert, the principal investigator on the Bas-Ellsworth project said.

“The Russian team share our mission to understand subglacial lake environments and we look forward to developing collaborations with their scientists and also those from the US and other nations, as we all embark on a quest to comprehend these pristine, extreme environments,” he told AP.

The projects are of particular fascination to astrobiologists, who study the origins and likely distribution of life across the Universe.

And from a Huffington Post report

“There is no other place on Earth that has been in isolation for more than 20 million years,” said Lev Savatyugin, a researcher with the AARI. “It’s a meeting with the unknown.”

Savatyugin said scientists hope to find primeval bacteria that could expand the human knowledge of the origins of life.

“We need to see what we have here before we send missions to ice-crusted moons, like Jupiter’s moon Europa,” he said.

Lake Vostok is 160 miles (250 kilometers) long and 30 miles (50 kilometers) across at its widest point, similar in area to Lake Ontario. It lies about 3.8 kilometers (2.4 miles) beneath the surface and is the largest in a web of nearly 400 known subglacial lakes in Antarctica. The lake is warmed underneath by geothermal energy.

The project, however, has drawn strong fears that 60 metric tons (66 tons) of lubricants and antifreeze used in the drilling may contaminate the pristine lake. The Russian researchers have insisted the bore would only slightly touch the lake’s surface and that a surge in pressure will send the water rushing up the shaft where it will freeze, immediately sealing out the toxic chemicals.

Lukin said about 1.5 cubic meters (50 cubic feet) of kerosene and freon poured up to the surface from the boreshaft, proof that the lake water streamed up from beneath, froze, and blocked the hole.

The scientists will later remove the frozen sample for analysis in December when the next Antarctic summer comes.

Scientists believe that microbial life may exist in the dark depths of the lake despite its high pressure and constant cold — conditions similar to those expected to be found under the ice crust on Mars, Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s move Enceladus.

“In the simplest sense, it can transform the way we think about life,” NASA’s chief scientist Waleed Abdalati told the AP by email.

That’s assuming there is life there…  And that it’s not just like a thousand horror-movie setups…  ANYhoo…  Here’s part 1/4 of the 2000 Horizon documentary – The Lost World of Lake Vostok.  Via Top Documentary Films


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  • wee buns

    Not sure why I find this topic wildly interesting (leaving aside conspiracy theories of Lake Vostok being a secret Nazi U boat base…) but apart from potential life lurking, what about the two people who shall remain to ‘monitor the borehole’? Gulp.

    ‘’How will Lake Vostok be explored?
    When the Russians break through to the lake, they will withdraw the drill, and pressure will force the water from the lake up the borehole, where it will freeze. It is hoped that this will prevent any drilling fluid from contaminating the lake.

    Meanwhile, most of the Russian team has evacuated the research station as the Antarctic winter closes in. Only two people remain to monitor the borehole. If it sounds like the beginning of a Hollywood horror film, it isn’t supposed to.’’

    Read more:

  • tuatha

    WeeBuns – probably unavailable these days but Charles Bronson in a B&W TV movie Deep Freeze, which was in the Twilight Zone franchise, had him in some isolated, frozen research station when they uncover a sexy, very alien from the ice.
    Right to the end he’s very tempted to throw in his lot with her against his uptight crew cut colleagues until they all end up dead, then has an attack of his trademark bravado and all ends well for B/S, imperialsim & the amerikan way.

  • lover not a fighter

    I thought that the best thinking was to leave three guys in this situation in case 1 goes doolally (2 sane ones against 1 crazy giving a better chance )

    Any chance of anything coming up from the lake and doing us all in (microbes, virus’s or whatever)

  • wee buns

    Lover not a fighter

    I agree that leaving only two is asking for trouble (like in ‘Lost’?) but on reflection, they have Skype: so when things get weird at least they can have a chat…as long as communications…hold out.

    As for the chances of anything coming UP from that borehole – the danger is opposite – it is we humans that can easilyl contaminate any life that exists below. The probe that melts its way through 4km of ice shall sterilize itself before releasing the robot camera into the pure waters, apparently….

    Given recent finds of Supergiant amphipods (Alicella gigantea) in our open seas ……

    Tried to find an image of Bronson’s temptation but failed. The film ‘The Abyss’ features prominently in seep sea ‘Non Terrestrial Intelligence’

    Note extremely useful tip from guy who discovered Lake V = when close to hypothermic state – EAT BUTTER.
    It warms you faster than vodka!