February 3, 2012
Researchers To Get First Peek At 20 Million Year-Old Lake
In what sounds like the opening scene to a bad monster movie, a team of Russian scientists are on the verge of drilling down to a lake buried under more than two miles of ice that hasn´t seen the light of day for over 20 million years, reports Rob Cooper for the Daily Mail.
Lake Vostok is the largest of Antarctica´s subglacial lakes and also one of the largest lakes in the world and the research team is poised to penetrate the final 40 feet of ice that sits atop the lake next week, after two decades of drilling, and hope to begin probing for signs of life.
Why has it taken so long to drill down only two miles? The East Antarctic Ice Sheet is a hazardous and lonely place with only a short amount of time each year that can be worked through. The scientists have been drilling 24-hours a day in three shifts as they race to beat the Antarctic winter which descends quickly, Huffington Post reports.
The task of drilling here is also slowed with the researchers aim of not contaminating the samples with modern bacteria. The lake has been isolated for millions of years and the hope is to peek into the composition of that pristine world.
There is an even more dangerous threat of a geyser-like explosion as the lake reportedly contains “quite a bit of gas,” meaning that an explosion could occur if the pressure isn´t released carefully. In fact, a geyser could send enough water vapor to the surface to alter Antarctica´s weather.
John Priscu, a Montana State University researcher, told the Washington Post, “This is a huge moment for science and exploration, breaking through to this enormous lake that we didn´t even know existed until the 1990s. If it goes well, a breakthrough opens up a whole new chapter in our understanding of our planet and possibly moons in our solar system and planets far beyond.”
“If it doesn´t go well, it casts a pall over the whole effort to explore this wet underside of Antarctica.”
Getting a look at Lake Vostok would be the first direct contact with a web of more than 200 subglacial lakes in Antarctica, some of which existed when the continent was connected to Australia and was tropical. Although buried under the almost 2 miles of crushing ice, the lakes remain in a liquid state due to heat from the core of the planet.
Lead Russian researcher Valery Lukin is on location and responded to questions last year during drilling efforts, explaining, “like exploring an alien planet where no one has been before. We don´t know what we´ll find.”
In recent years, microbes have been discovered living in the ice wherever the scientists explore in Antarctica, including deep in the Vostok bore hole. This finding has revolutionized thinking about the continent and has encouraged researchers, including Priscu, to conclude that life almost certainly will be found in Vostok and the other subglacial lakes.
The discovery of microbes in the isolated lakes would also have particular significance in astrobiology and the search for life beyond Earth. Jupiter´s moon Europa and Saturn´s moon Enceladus have deep ice crusts that scientists think cover large amounts of liquid water warmed by sources other than the sun, very similar to Vostok. Biologists worldwide are awaiting results of lake samples eagerly.
Image Caption: The surface above Lake Vostok, hidden under more than a kilometer of ice, looks like most of Antarctica´s landscape–flat, barren, and icy. The best way to detect a subglacial lake is through remote sensing. Credit: M. Studinger, LDEO
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