Chuck Kennicutt: Penetrating miles of Antarctic ice in search of alien-like life

Russian scientists have penetrated miles of Antarctic ice to analyze waters for alien-like life. EarthSky spoke with oceanographer Chuck Kennicutt.

In early 2012, Russian scientists penetrated miles of Antarctic ice to finally reach the waters of Lake Vastok, which hasn’t seen the light of day in over 15 million years. Now researchers from many parts of the world will analyze its waters for alien-like life.

EarthSky spoke to oceanographer Chuck Kennicutt of Texas A&M heads the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, which coordinates research in the area. Kennicutt said:

This is truly a breakthrough event. Our Russian colleagues should be congratulated on an outstanding feat of accomplishment, technologically. This has been a long time in the planning. There’s been great interest for more than a decade, that these are very unusual environments that we know little about, primarily because they’ve never been penetrated.

An artist's cross-section of Lake Vostok, the largest known subglacial lake in Antarctica. The depth of the drill core has increased since the diagram was created. Credit: Nicolle Rager-Fuller, NSF

An artist’s cross-section of Lake Vostok, the largest known subglacial lake in Antarctica. The depth of the drill core has increased since the diagram was created. Credit: Nicolle Rager-Fuller, NSF

Valery Lukin is head of Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute that oversaw the scientific drilling in the sub-glacial lake of Antarctica’s Lake Vostok. He said:

It’s like the first flight to the moon

In February, 2012, Russian scientists finally announced that they had penetrated 3769.3 meters of glacial ice to reach the waters of Lake Vostok, which hasn’t seen the light of day in over 15 million years.

Russian researchers at the Vostok station work in a snow bore pit. (Russian Geographical Society)

Russian researchers at the Vostok station work in a snow bore pit. (Russian Geographical Society)

Kennicutt told EarthSky:

This first entry, in and of itself will only be the beginning of providing information about what might be living in the lakes, how have these lakes evolved over time, do these lakes impact the overlying ice sheets, are ice streams associated with accumulations of water, and just a whole range of scientific knowledge will ultimately come from the exploration of these environments.

Russian Vostok station and 5G drill tower. (Russian Geographical Society)

Russian Vostok station and 5G drill tower. (Russian Geographical Society)

Russian scientists call Lake Vostok “the pole of cold,” with average surface temperatures a chilly -56 degrees Celcius (-68.8 degrees Fahrenheit). Scientists worldwide suspect that microbes might be living in the sub-glacial waters of Lake Vostok. The extreme conditions there are similar to what life on other worlds might face. Dr. Kennicutt explained the search for alien-like life at Lake Vostok:

Fundamental to the existence of life as far as we know it is the existence of liquid water. That has always been the touchstone for looking for where life might exist beyond planet Earth. This is particularly true in our own solar system such as the discovery of icy moons like Europa, that we’re convinced now from studies does have liquid water beneath a thick ice sheet; and also the moon of Saturn, Enceladus. We do know that there are places in our solar system that have thick ice sheets over what appears to be liquid water. And that’s the analogy that’s often given.

These lakes in Antarctica are similar, though there are much more severe conditions once you get off of planet Earth. There is at least the analogy that these are locations that organisms could possibly have colonized that are beneath large ice sheets in liquid water. That’s the connection that people make in trying to understand where is the most likely place to look for life beyond Earth.

Jupiter's moon Europa, which scientists also suspect might harbor life beneath miles of ice.

Jupiter’s moon Europa, which scientists also suspect might harbor life beneath miles of ice.

Listen to the 90-second EarthSky interview with Chuck Kennicutt on penetrating miles of Antarctic ice on Lake Vastok to analyze water samples for possible alien-like life, at the top of the page.

Racing against time to strike liquid water in frozen, ancient Lake Vostok

Jorge Salazar

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