Russians Reach Subglacial Lake Vostok
09.02.2012 - Logistics, Water & Oceans, Ice & Snow, Antarctic
On Sunday 5 February 2012, a Russian drilling team was able to penetrate the surface of Lake Vostok, the largest subglacial lake in Antarctica (250 km long and 30 km wide), which began to be covered by ice between 15 and 34 million years ago. Having not had contact with the atmosphere for millions of years, scientists see the subglacial lake as one of the final frontiers to explore on Earth, given hat ti may contain life which has evolved in a unique environment.
Located more than 3 km beneath the surface of the Antarctic Ice Sheet in a remote area of the continent not far from the Geomagnetic South Pole and Russia’s Vostok Station, Lake Vostok is the first subglacial lake scientists have been able to penetrate. Reaching the lake is an achievement akin to landing a man on the moon, according to Dr. Valery Lukin, the head of Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, who oversaw the mission.
A dark, aquatic environment under high pressure with high amounts of oxygen and few nutrients, scientists are very interested in exploring the lake and studying the kind of extremophile life that might have evolved in such a harsh and unique environment. Similar environments are thought to exist on Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus.
Dr. Lukin says the lake might contain chemotroph bacteria, which feed on chemical reactions in lightless environments, possibly similar to those found deep on the ocean floor, but possibly having followed a different evolutionary path.
After more than 20 years of drilling, which advanced in stops and starts due to lack of funding, extreme cold and concerns that lubricant and antifreeze used in, the team was able to make the final push to get to the lake after the Antarctic Treaty System’s Environmental Protection Committee approved its drilling plans in 2010.
As the lake is under high pressure, once the drill team reached the lake surface, 40 litres of water is reported to have shot up the drill hole and froze, pushing drill fluid up and away from the surface of the lake and creating an ice plug that will protect the lake until researchers return in December to start taking samples of the lake water.
British and American teams are also drilling into two other subglacial lakes, Lake Ellsworth and Lake Whillans, respectively; however these lakes are much younger than Lake Vostok.