Published in the Mar-Apr 2012 issue of MyLIFE magazine
“There is no other place on Earth [like Lake Vostok] that has been in complete isolation for more than 20 million years,” said Lev Savatyugin, a researcher with the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI). “It’s a meeting with the unknown.”
In mid-February, after more than two decades of drilling in Antarctica, Russian scientists reached the surface of a gigantic freshwater lake hidden under miles of ice, since an ice sheet covered it between 14 million and 34 million years ago.
It’s believed that Lake Vostok, the most deeply buried of some 400 subglacial lakes, may contain specially adapted microorganisms and even new life forms.
Although the lake is far from being the world’s deepest, the severe Antarctica weather and the lake’s remoteness made the Vostok project incredibly challenging.
Lake Vostok, approximately 800 miles from the South Pole, in the central part of the Russian side of Antarctica, is the largest of the many subglacial lakes that have been discovered under the Antarctic ice in recent decades. At 160 miles long and 30 miles wide, Vostok is similar in size to Lake Ontario.
Lake Vostok has a two-mile-thick blanket of ice across its surface, keeping in the heat generated by geothermal energy under the surface. Scientists hope Vostok will offer a glimpse into microbial life forms that existed before the Ice Age, not visible to the naked eye. Vostok has been compared with the oceans believed to exist below the surface on one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, and one of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus.
While American and British teams are drilling to reach other subglacial Antarctic lakes, Columbia University glaciologist Robin Bell said those are smaller and younger lakes than Vostok, which is she calls a “big scientific prize.”
“It’s like exploring another planet, except this one is ours,” Bell said about the Vostok mission.
Scientists began drilling at Vostok Station, the Russians’ Antarctic base, in 1990, returning every summer to continue their work. It began as an ice-coring effort to examine ancient climatic conditions. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that scientists realized that a huge lake lay deep below the surface.
In mid–February of this year a Russian scientific team led by Valery Lukin, the head of Russia’s AARI, first reached Vostok’s lake water at a depth of 12,366 feet. Approximately 11 gallons of water were returned to the surface—water completely isolated from earthly life forms since before man existed.
A small container of the Vostok water was presented to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin with great fanfare.
“I think it’s fair to compare this project to flying to the moon,” Lukin said shortly after the milestone was reached.
In 2007, John Priscu, an ecologist with Montana State University, told National Geographic he had found evidence that microbes could live in subglacial lakes like Vostok, deriving energy from minerals—in effect, “eating rocks.”
Scientists have been quick to rebuff claims that their drilling may have contaminated the lake, a body of water that has been isolated for such a very long time. The Russian researchers insisted that the drilling only slightly touched the lake’s surface and that the brief surge in pressure sent the water rushing up the shaft where it froze, immediately sealing out any toxic chemicals. To further protect the lake’s purity, the team agreed to melt the last bit of ice using a thermal probe instead of the drill.
In the next couple of years, the United Kingdom and the United States will sample water and sediments from different Antarctic subglacial lakes, Ellsworth and Whillans.
Lukin and his team will return to Vostok in December, when the next Antarctic summer comes, at which time they will remove the frozen sample for analysis. The Russian team plans to further explore Vostok in 2013 using a variety of probes. One probe will measure temperature and acidity, while a second will carry a spectrometer to study any organic compounds found in the water.
Mahlon Kennicutt, president of the International Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, hopes these three subglacial lake projects are only the beginning. “They’re not actually at the extremes of pressure and temperature, but they are limited in nutrients and energy,” Kennicutt said. “The question is how microbes make a living down there.”
According to Kennicutt, the scientific payoff from Vostok is still many years away. While NASA’s chief scientist, Waleed Abdalati, concurs, he said subglacial lakes like Vostok could eventually offer new insights into climate history and beyond. “In the simplest sense, this can transform the way we think about life,” Abdalati said.