March 2, 2006

Contamination feared as Russia explores “lost world”

By Christian Lowe

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Hidden about four km (2.5 miles) beneath
the ice near the South Pole lies a lake that scientists believe
represents a lost world, harboring organisms sealed off from
the rest of the planet for millions of years.

Russian researchers are drilling down through the ice
toward Lake Vostok as they seek to unlock the secrets of what
some say is the last great unexplored frontier on earth.

The lake under the Antarctic ice is uniquely important
precisely because it is so pristine, but all that could be lost
forever if the tiniest particle of outside matter is allowed in
when the Russian drill pokes through into the water.

Many experts say ultra-clean technology to pierce through
to the lake without contamination is not yet ready.

Yet Russian scientists have already drilled down to within
about 130 meters (430 feet) of the lake and -- defying
misgivings from their peers in other countries -- say they will
break through by 2008.

"The drilling will continue," said Valery Lukin, head of
the Russian Antarctic Expedition. "We are not violating any
rules. If our activities don't suit people, what can I say?"

"It's like this: who was the first to fly to the moon? The
Soviet Union or the United States? That time the Americans won
and we halted our lunar program," he told Reuters.

"Now this time we are going to be first. So what? We just
got luckier, that's all ... It's all been turned into politics.
Some people don't like (what we are doing) because it is not
them doing it."

Russian scientists finished their latest stint of drilling
earlier this year, rushing to beat the onset of the Antarctic
winter in a spot where the coldest temperature ever -- minus
89.2 Celsius (minus 128.6 Fahrenheit) -- was recorded.

They bored 27 meters (89 feet) deeper toward the lake and
plan to start again in December.


Antarctic has more than 70 sub-glacial lakes. They exist
because the pressure of the ice above keeps the water from
freezing. But Lake Vostok, at between 15 and 20 million years
old, is thought to be the oldest.

Exploring the lake will be like taking a journey back
through time to discover what life looked like before man
appeared on earth, say scientists.

"Things like antibiotics that we have come up with, all the
pollutants ... that are man-made, none of those have ever been
seen by this lake," Dr. Cynan Ellis-Evans of the British
Antarctic Survey told Reuters.

With so much at stake, the Russians are moving too fast,
said Ellis-Evans.

"We are desperately worried ... that they are planning to
go at (this lake) with a system which they haven't satisfied
everybody is appropriate," he said.

"If something goes wrong .... we could be left with a
situation which may not be easily retrievable."

Vostok has an added fascination for scientists because
conditions there -- cold, with no light or air -- mirror those
on Europa, one of Jupiter's moons where space probes have found
evidence of an ocean below the frozen surface.

If living organisms are found in the lake, it could
strengthen the argument for the presence of life beyond our


Lake Vostok is a prestige project for Russia. Russia's
Antarctic research station is a few hundred meters from the
bore hole and gave its name to the lake when its existence was
established in 1996.

Russia, in agreement with other countries involved in
Antarctic research, suspended drilling in 1998 while a safe
technique for breaching the ice was sought.

Since then, Russia has restarted drilling, saying it
believed it had come up with the right technique.

"There can be no negative effect (or) contamination of the
lake," said Lukin. "I base this certainty on the laws of
physics and practical experience (of the use of similar
techniques elsewhere)," he said.

Under the 1961 Antarctic Treaty, all nations are free to
carry out civilian, non-nuclear research on the continent as
long as they share their plans and their findings with other
countries -- something Russia has done throughout.

Ellis-Evans said he would be delighted if the Russians
became the first to reach Lake Vostok. His main concern, he
said, is that it is done without damaging the very thing that
makes the lake so fascinating for scientists.

"(This is) arguably one of the most pristine environments
on earth so how can we possibly think of just clumsily going in
there and potentially contaminating it?" he said.

"We are ... worried that everybody is going to lose out."

(Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk in St Petersburg)