I watched a BBC documentary last night about Lake Vostok, the enormous lake that lies thousands of feet below Antarctica’s frozen ice. The documentary explores how this lake was discovered, and the incredible task of drilling through miles of ice to get access to it.
As compelling as the human task has been, the potential for new-to-science life to be discovered in this ancient lake is far more exciting.
To prevent a sudden release of gas, the Russian team will not push the drill far into the lake but just deep enough for a limited amount of water — or the slushy ice on the lake’s surface — to flow up the borehole, where it will then freeze.
Reaching Lake Vostok would represent the first direct contact with what scientists now know is a web of more than 200 subglacial lakes in Antarctica — some of which existed when the continent was connected to Australia and was much warmer. They stay liquid because of heat from the core of the planet.
“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,” said John Priscu, a researcher at Montana State University who has long been involved in antarctic research, including a study of Vostok ice cores.
“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,” he said. “If it doesn’t go well, it casts a pall over the whole effort to explore this wet underside of Antarctica.”
Priscu said Russian scientists on the scene e-mailed him last week to say they had stopped drilling about 40 feet from the expected waterline to measure the pressure levels deep below. Priscu said he expected that they were also sending down a special “hot water” drill to make the final push, but a message from the Russian team Monday reported “no news.”
If the Russians break through as planned within the next week, it will cap more than 50 years of research in what are considered the harshest conditions in the world — where the surface temperatures drop to 100 degrees below zero. That extreme cold is likely to return within a few weeks, at the end of the antarctic summer, putting pressure on the Russians to make the final push or pull out until the next antarctic drilling season, starting in December.
The extreme cold, which limited drilling time, contributed to the long duration of the project. The Russian team also ran into delays caused by financial strains and by efforts to address international worries about their drilling operation.
Valery Lukin, who is leading the effort for the Russians, is on the ice. Last year, he told Reuters that their work is “like exploring an alien planet where no one has been before. We don’t know what we’ll find.”