An Antarctic Discovery

Russians drill down to a lake in Antarctica that has been covered by ice for millions of years

February 13, 2012

Russian scientists braved sub-zero temperatures to drill a hole down to Lake Vostok.

After two decades of start-and-stop drilling, Russian researchers have finally reached Lake Vostok. The lake is buried beneath ice that is two miles thick. The lake’s fresh water has remained untouched for the last 20 million years. One of roughly 400 lakes that rest under the ice on the continent, Lake Vostok is the largest. At 160 miles long and 30 miles wide, it is similar in size to Lake Ontario in North America.

Looking for Life

American and British teams are drilling to reach other Antarctic lakes under the ice. But according to Robin Bell, a Columbia University scientist who studies glaciers, those other lakes are smaller and younger. Bell says the age and size of Lake Vostok make it a big scientific prize. “It’s like exploring another planet, except this one is ours,” she said.

Scientists around the world are eager to see what the Russians find at Lake Vostok once they study water samples. Researchers want to find out what—if any—life exists in that cold and dark place. It’s possible that bacteria too tiny to see might live and even thrive there. That might not seem like much, but scientists know this tiny life existed on Earth before plants and animals did. Some of the bacteria may be similar to bacteria that currently lives near the dark and deep ocean floor. One big difference:  Lake Vostok’s life dates back millions of years.

The drilling rig is set up on the ice of Antarctica.

The drilling rig is set up on the ice of Antarctica.

"The more we learn about life, the more we learn about its ability to grow and survive and [do well] in environments that we formerly thought were too inhospitable," said David Morrison, a senior scientist at NASA's Astrobiology Institute.

Lessons for Exploring Space

The drilling of Lake Vostok has made it possible for scientists to test technologies that could be used to study similar places in our solar system. "Conditions in lakes in Antarctica are the closest we can get to those where scientists expect to find extraterrestrial life," said Valery Lukin, the head of Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute.

Researchers believe the conditions of Lake Vostok are similar to those found under the ice crust on Mars, on Jupiter's moon Europa, and on a moon of Saturn. Studying the lake may help scientists determine which of those other icy worlds to target for exploration first.

Climate Clues

But we won’t need to travel to far-away moons or to Mars to start using the data found during the drilling. Lake Vostok will provide more information about the history of Antarctica, which many believe was part of a larger continent in Earth’s distant history.

Other people think what we learn about the lake will improve our knowledge of Earth’s climate and help us to predict changes to it. Mahlon Kennicutt II, a Texas A&M University professor of oceanography believes this is very important. “A view of the past gives us a window on our planet's future,” he said.

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