Russian scientists drill into Antarctic Lake Vostok which has been sealed off for milllenia

As scientists report breakthrough in reaching the lake, Trisha Chowdhury investigates how this discovery could reveal clues about evolution and unknown species

Buried deep under the Antarctic ice is a liquid lake, untouched for almost 20 million years. Russian scientists have reported success in drilling their way through an Antarctic glacier and reaching the surface of the vast Lake Vostok.

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

There are more than 300 sub-glacial lakes. These lakes are predominantly huge bodies of water that have been kept liquid as a result of geothermal heat and pressure. They form an important aspect of Antarctic study since they are a part of a vast and dynamic hydrological network that has been under ice for thousands or even millions of years.

Some of the lakes are inter-connected, which enables them to exchange water between each other. However, some of them, such as Lake Vostok, are isolated and completely cut off from the exchange system. In such instances, the water of the lakes have been untouched for thousands of years.

If the water was sampled, it might enable the detection of new organisms that have been unknown to the world of science.  These organisms have been devoid of sunlight or any atmospheric contact due to the large sheets of ice.

The Lake Vostok is an enormous stretch of water, spreading across 15,000 square kilometres. The lake is also more than 800 meters deep.  The size and the depth of the lake make it very similar to Lake Baikal in Siberia or Lake Ontario in North America. This made the project a very challenging one for the Russian scientists and also makes the prospect of possible revelations very exciting.

In the year 1956, the project of drilling into Lake Vostok was started by Russia and resultantly, the Vostok Station was set up in Antarctica. It is 50 years now since the study began, but the Russian scientists were unaware that it was even a lake they were about to uncover for the first 35 years.

All they knew was that a vast expanse of liquid existed beneath the ice surface that was confirmed after reports of seismic soundings.  It was not before the late 1990s that certain British scientists were able to determine the full size of the lake by using radar. This discovery went on to show the tremendous scope that the research had in store.

The Russian team then went to Vostok after the research facilities were set up at the South Pole by the United States of America. The site was about 900 miles away from the US. The Vostok area was the one that was coveted by the Russians since it is close to the “geomagnetic” South Pole which is an important site for observing the Earth’s magnetic fields.

To achieve this discovery, the Russian scientists used a thermal drill on the last 30 feet of ice. Next, they pierced the lake and drew water from it through the borehole.

Russian scientists have also confirmed that they have successfully taken a 40 litre water sample from ‘the last frontier’ on earth. It is hoped that the sample will reveal microbial life forms that existed before the Ice Age.

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

The findings of this research have excited scientists world-wide and in many different fields. It may benefit those in the field of astrobiology to determine the probability of  the existence life outside this planet. Many planetary moons are covered by a thick layer ice with water below in a liquid state. This liquid water is kept warm by the inner heat of the moon or by tidal forces. The findings would throw light on conditions prevailing in Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s moon Encedadus that have fascinated scientists for a long time.

Climate change is also another area where the findings at Lake Vostok may prove useful. About 70 percent of the planet’s fresh water is found at Antarctica in the form of ice or sub-glacial liquid. The findings will help scientists in understanding possible future rises in global sea levels, a phenomenon that climate change predicts will happen due to global warming.

Many scientists around the world support this research and its possible findings. “If they were successful, their efforts will transform the way we do science in Antarctica and provide us with an entirely new view of what exists under the vast Antarctic ice sheet,” said John Priscu of Montana State University, an Antarctica specialist who has been in contact intermittently with the Russian team.

There are, however, some critics of this research.  Some scientists express their doubt about whether life forms could possibly exist in the harsh conditions as Lake Vostok presents (a temperature of minus eighty nine degrees at some times of the year).

Other criticisms have also surfaced. Mahlon “Chuck” Kennicutt, a professor of chemical oceanography at Texas A&M University, is an expert in polar dynamics. He warns that expectations for this project may be too high.

“Physical and chemical measurements might establish whether the lake is fresh or salt water, whether it is normally or over pressured, and what other geochemistry may be apparent.

The problem is that Lake Vostok is the size of Lake Ontario. You can imagine sampling Lake Ontario from a plane at a height of 4 km with a straw that just brushes the top of the lake and then try to describe the lake from this incomplete picture.”

Others contemplate the contamination threats that the act of drilling poses to the pristine lake. The lake has not had contact with the atmosphere and has not even felt the wind for more than 20 million years.  It could be contaminated by kerosene, Freon and other materials used in the process of drilling. Vladimir Chuprov, from Greenpeace Russia, said “There is a set of risks which can damage this relic lake and some of them are connected with polluting the lake with the drilling fluids, as well as other stuff that can get into this unique lake.”

The project holds a lot of expectations and the world looks on with bated breath. It will be some time before some findings will be released officially. Until then, Lake Vostok and what lies beneath will continue to be a mystery to all.



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