A Russian team achieves a world first as they reach a subterranean lake in the Antarctic whilst fighting off competition from the U.S and the U.K; but the race isn’t over yet.
Lake Vostok, one of the world’s largest lakes, lies under 4km of ice and measures 250km long and up to 50km wide. It has been hidden from the rest of the world for millions of years; until now.
Scientists speculate about the conditions in the lake and whether they are compatible with life. If life forms are found, they are expected to be unique microbes that could improve our understanding of the threshold of life on our own Planet as well as implications for life on other worlds.
"This will give us the possibility to biologically evaluate the evolution of living organisms...
because those organisms spent a long time without contact with the atmosphere, without sunlight," says Valery Lukin, from Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI) in St Petersburg.
On the surface all food chains are supported by Photosynthesis, the process that produces energy from sunlight. But there is no light under 4km of ice; animals, however, at the deep see vents also survive without sunlight. Here the food chain is supported by organisms called Chemoautotrophs that, instead of sunlight, produce energy by using molecules like methane or hydrogen sulphide.
The drilling ceased on the 5th February and most of the team have now left before the arrival of the Antarctic winter. The temperatures are freezing at the isolated Vostok station where the Russian scientists have been working. The lowest ever recorded temperatures on earth where recorded here, reaching lows of -89 degrees Celsius in 1983.
Vostok station, situated above Lake Vostok, is one of the remotest places on the earth. Located near the south Geometric pole, at the centre of the East Antarctic ice sheet; before using aeroplanes, it used to take an agonising month long journey by truck from the cost, almost 1400km away, for the station to receive supplies.
The finding of the lake occurred in the early 1960’s when Soviet Antarctic Expedition pilots observed an extremely flat area near the ice. Conformation came later in the early 1970’s when British scientists performed ice-penetrating radar surveys identifying liquid water. It was complete luck that the Station, having been established in 1957, was built near the site. A fortunate accident meant drilling could begin without too much difficulty.
Drilling began in the early 1980’s but was stopped in 1996 at 3600m after fears about contaminating the lake arose. It has been over two decades of drilling to finally reach the Lake.
The announcement comes in a significant year for the history of Antarctica; recently, it was the 100th anniversary of the first Men to reach the South Pole. The Antarctic was the scene of a frantic race by two teams, A Norwegian team and a British Team vying for the honour and acclaim for accomplishing the arduous expedition to the Pole first.
It was the Norwegian team, led by Roald Amundsen, that reached the South Pole first on December 14th 1911; much to the disappointment of the British team. Amundsen’s team returned to their base camp on January 25th, 1912
The second team, Led by Robert Falcon Scott, reached the Pole several weeks later on January 17th, 1912. Distraught at coming second, the team made for the Journey back; but never returned. All five men of the British team died, highlighting the extremes and dangers of Antarctic research.
The Russian drilling team, despite their success, must wait until the next Antarctic summer to study their samples; first they need to freeze before they can be transported to the surface. And the British and Americans are catching up.
"It is an important milestone that has been completed and a major achievement for the Russians because they've been working on this for years," said Professor Martin Siegert, the leader of a rival British team.
A British team is set to start drilling in November 2012, at Lake Ellsworth and an American team will begin drilling in January 2013, at Whillian’s Ice Stream. The race to see who will test the cold isolated waters for life first is not over. The American and British teams are both using newer technology that drills faster and transports liquid water. They both hope to be testing their samples next year.
By Aaron Faunch