Thursday, March 25, 2010

Exploring Vostok and Ellsworth, the great lakes of Antarctica

Researchers from the UK, Russia, and the US are drilling deep holes in Antarctica in hopes of exploring lakes that have contained -- up until today -- the purest water on the earth.

The big question is whether the researchers will destroy what they have gone so far to discover: the untouched sanctity of the freshwater. It's a real concern, according the Washington Post:
The issue of contamination is already a heated one. The Lake Vostok drilling initially used kerosene and Freon, and scientists from around the world voiced concern that these chemicals would contaminate the untouched subglacial lake at contact. The Russians said they have since devised techniques to protect against polluting the lake, and they have submitted them to an international body that sets guidelines for Antarctic and glacial drilling. Those new plans will limit what the Russians initially collect from Vostok and will keep them from going deeper into the lake for some years, but their representatives said they embraced them anyway.
The Post article describes three major explorations of these mysterious lakes:
The first group scheduled to break through is the Russian team at Lake Vostok, the largest body of freshwater on the continent and the fourth largest lake, in terms of volume, on the planet. The Russians began drilling their Vostok ice core in 1957 but didn't know there was a massive lake below until 1995. They have drilled down almost three miles and are now within 300 feet of the water, and they hope to break through early next year.

Because of its enormous size and its location at the center of the continent, Vostok is generally considered the jewel in the crown for Antarctic study. Scientists have found microbes living (or, some say, just present) in most sections of the ice core pulled up so far, and they expect more are living in the darkness of the lake water and, most important, in the sediment below the mile-deep lake.

One tantalizing theory says that microbes at the bottom of the lake may be descendants of organisms that lived there 25 million to 30 million years ago, before Antarctica broke off entirely from the other continents and its forested environment turned into an icy one. If true, scientists will have found extreme forms of life cut off from the sun and the planet's surface for eons, which is precisely what they're looking for on frigid planets and moons. “We are expecting surprises,” said Valery Lukin of the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute.
Imagine what might be down there.
The British program focuses on Lake Ellsworth, situated near the wide start of the Antarctic Peninsula. That team will also be drilling through several miles of ice in search of microbial and other life forms in water that hasn't seen light for millions of years.

The U.S. effort, located in West Antarctica, will study a subglacial ecosystem that includes rivers, lakes and the area where the land ends and the ocean beneath the Ross Ice Shelf begins.
Photo credits:  Uni-Bremen/Studinger and, monster by Stephane Lahaye.

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