Russian Drill Team Close to Penetrating Lake Vostok
31.01.2012 - Logistics, Water & Oceans, Ice & Snow, Flora & Fauna, Antarctic
A Russian drilling team is close to penetrating subglacial Lake Vostok, located more than three and a half kilometers deep in the Antarctic Ice Sheet, not far from the Russian Vostok Station at the Magnetic South Pole. After two decades of drilling through several kilometres of ice, the team is only 50 metres away from penetrating the lake.
However as the Antarctic season is fast coming to an end, the big question is whether the team will be able to finish the drilling before they must leave on 6 February. The ice just above the lake is pure frozen lake water and is as hard as glass, which has made progress very difficult. Weather conditions at Vostok are some of the harshest on the planet. The lowest temperature ever recorded on Earth, -89°C, was recorded at Vostok station on 21 July 1983.
Concerns over contaminating the subglacial lake halted drilling in 1998, after the team had drilled 3,600 metres and were only 130 metres from the lake. Drilling resumed in 2004 when the team had found ecologically safe ways of drilling and probing the lake. In 2010 the Antarctic Treaty System’s Environmental Protection Committee gave the green light to sample the lake.
Unexposed to the air in 20 to 30 million years and buried under kilometers of ice, Lake Vostok is set to become the first of a vast network of subglacial lakes that exist in the Antarctic Ice Sheet to be explored by scientists, and will afford a unique opportunity to investigate subglacial lake environments and what kinds of life might exist there.
If life exists in Lake Vostok, it would have to be extremophile – adapted to living in an extreme environment. Organisms living in Lake Vostok would have to be adapted to living in cold water under high pressure containing high amounts of oxygen, with few nutrients available and no sunlight.
Conditions in the lake are considered to be similar to Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s moon Enceladus. If life is found in Lake Vostok, it could mean that it is possible for life to exist in similar hostile environments on other worlds.