Frozen, ancient Lake Vostok and a race against time

After many years of drilling through ice, Russian scientists are on the verge of penetrating into frozen Lake Vostok, an ancient lake in Antarctica that might have been isolated for as long as 15 million years. With just 50 meters (164 feet) of ice left to drill before they strike liquid water, they are racing against the end of southern hemisphere summer and the return of plummeting temperatures on the Antarctic continent.

Lake Vostok is one of 150 subglacial lakes in Antarctica. It’s about the size of Lake Ontario, and it lies under about 4,000 meters (13,000 feet, 2.5 miles) of ice.

Valery Lukin, the deputy head of Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, told the BBC News,

It’s like working on an alien planet where no one has been before. We don’t know what awaits us down there.

They might still strike liquid water this year, but they won’t be exploring the lake anytime soon. Summer solstice in Antarctica and the rest of the southern hemisphere took place in December. Now that part of the globe is moving toward winter again. The team has to leave by early February, before it gets too cold for planes to land at Russia’s Vostok Station, the site of the Lake Vostok drilling project. It’s at this location that the coldest known temperature in the world was recorded: -89 degrees Celsius (-128 degrees Farenheit), on July 21, 1983, This spot on the Antarctic continent is only 1,300 kilometers (808 miles) from the geographic South Pole,

Even at this brutally cold location, water at the bottom of Lake Vostok remains in liquid form, heated from below by Earth’s geothermal heat, and insulated from above by the thick layers of ice.

Before leaving Vostok Station, the scientists hope to reach the lake. As soon as a drill sensor detects liquid water, steps will be taken to minimize contamination of the pristine lake by moving the drill up some distance, sucking some lake water up the bore hole, and allowing it to freeze into a plug of frozen ice. The scientists will be back when summer comes to Antarctica again – in late 2011 – to sample the plug of frozen lake water and make the first tentative steps towards studying the liquid depths of the lake.

Is it possible for life to exist in a frigid environment like this, an ice-covered lake that hasn’t seen the sun in several million years?

We know it’s possible at hydrothermal vents deep in the ocean where the food cycle is based on chemicals released from the Earth’s interior. But Lake Vostok is a completely different and little-understood environment. It’s not yet known if the body of water itself is several million years old, allowing for organisms to evolve independent of outside influences, or if the lake is connected to subglacial rivers that slowly change out the water. A possible preview of things to come appeared in the analysis of ice layers thought to be close to the liquid water, possibly refrozen lake water, where scientists found some microorganisms.

Exploring the environment of Lake Vostok may have implications in the search for life in our solar system. Conditions in the lake are thought to be quite similar to those on Europa, a moon of Jupiter, and Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. If life can be found thriving deep inside Lake Vostok, it raises hopes in the search for life on these planetary satellite bodies.

So the race against the clock continues at Russia’s Vostok Station, the site of the Lake Vostok drilling project. Scientists hope they can drill far enough to reach liquid water now, before Antarctica’s bitter cold forces them to pack up their gear and leave the lake until the summer research season in Antarctica begins again in late 2011.

Tom Neumann on whether Antarctica is warming or cooling

Bill Stone: Robot sub, alien life, Jupiter’s moon

January 31, 2011

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