by Andrea Mustain
February 08, 2012
It's official. Russian scientists announced today that they have
Lake Vostok, an ancient, liquid lake the size
of Lake Ontario buried beneath more than 2 miles (~3 kilometers) of
ice for at least 14 million years.
The revelation comes after days of speculation on whether the
years-long effort had finally achieved its goal.
News of the scientific milestone was evidently on hold, as Russian
headquarters waited on some measurements from Vostok Station, the
tiny outpost in the middle of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet where the
have been drilling toward Lake Vostok since the late 1990s.
In fact, just after 9 a.m. local time (12 a.m. ET), Sergei
Lesenkov, a spokesman for Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research
Institute, based in St. Petersburg, told OurAmazingPlanet that the
team was still awaiting some final numbers from Antarctica.
"We are waiting for information
which will allow us to confirm this result," Lesenkov said.
He said that it appeared lake water had
shot dozens of meters up into the long borehole, but that an
announcement would likely come on Thursday morning, local time.
Yet it appears the Vostok team came through faster than expected,
and Russia announced to the world that it had reached Lake Vostok
just a few hours later.
The team's ice-coring drill broke through the slushy layer of ice at
bottom of the massive ice sheet and
reached fresh, liquid lake water on Feb. 5, at a depth of 12,366
feet (3,769 meters) according to the press release issued today by
the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute
Scientists suspect that the massive lake could house
cold-loving organisms uniquely
adapted to live in the darkness under the ice.
The lake has been cut
off from the outside world since the ice sheet covered it - as long
as 34 million years ago, or, according to the most modest estimates,
14 million years ago (see
Antarctica's Biggest Mysteries.)
Some scientists have expressed concern over the drill method the
Russians are using at
Their ice-coring drill, which was
originally designed to bore deep into the ice sheet and bring back
long tubes of ice for climate research, uses what is essentially jet
fuel to keep the long borehole from freezing over season after
season, and there are fears that the fuel will contaminate the lake,
or at least the lake water samples retained for research.
The Russians have maintained that, because the Freon, kerosene and
other hydrocarbons in the drill fluid are less dense than water,
that they will be pushed up through the borehole and will never
touch the lake.
Today's press release states that this has indeed
been the case, and that drill fluid was pushed up and away from the
lake itself and into sealed containers.
Drilling began at
Vostok Station in the 1970s, before there was any
inkling that one of the largest lakes on Earth lay beneath the site,
and the drill the Vostok team is using wasn't built to retrieve lake
It can only fetch ice, thus the team
won't be able to actually get their hands on water samples and test
them for life until next season - the water must be left to freeze
in the borehole over the austral winter.
Several scientists have said that even if the Russians don't find
evidence of living organisms in the samples they bring back from
Vostok, there's no reason to believe the lake is a dead zone.
"A 'no' answer isn't a clear
negative," said Robin Bell, a geophysicist and professor at
Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who has
studied Lake Vostok and other buried Antarctic lakes for more
than a decade.
Bell said that life likes to gather on
the edges of environments.
"We like to live on the beach," she said
So it's likely that anything living in the lake might set up house
in the mud at the bottom, or at the edges of the ice.
The Vostok project is sampling only surface layers of the lake, from
one of its shallowest areas, because of the location of the station
itself. When the Soviets built Vostok Station in the mid-20th
century, they happened to choose a spot right over the southern tip
of the lake.
The lake's true scale wasn't officially established until the
mid-1990s, and data now indicate the lake is roughly 155 miles (250
km) long, 50 miles (80 km) wide in places, and more than 1,600 feet
(500 m) deep.
And soon, the Russians are going to have some friendly competition
in the quest to sample ice-covered lakes that have been cut off for
millennia. [Race to the South Pole in Images]
Teams from the United States and the United Kingdom are set to begin
their own drilling projects to long-buried Antarctic lakes, and have
the advantage of state-of-the-art equipment designed specifically
for the task.
Both the British and American teams are using hot-water drills which
can reach their targets in mere days, and have the ability to
retrieve liquid samples from throughout the lakes' depth, including
sediment at the bottom, and the samples can be brought back to the
surface within 24 hours.
The British are poised to
begin drilling to Lake Ellsworth, a lake
in West Antarctica buried beneath 2 miles (3 km) of ice, in autumn
2012, and may be the first team to put Antarctic lake water under a
Today's announcement comes amid a flurry of rumors and exaggerated
the Lake Vostok project, which some have
likened to the plot of a science fiction movie.
At least one Russian news outlet reported on Monday that an
anonymous source said the team had reached the lake, then went on to
discuss rumors that Vostok Station, established by the Soviets in
1957, was also the site of
a long-lost Nazi hideout, and that German
submarines brought Hitler's and Eva Braun's remains to Antarctica
for cloning purposes.
Days before that, some American and British news outlets circulated
reports that the scientists working at Vostok Station had lost radio
contact with the outside world and were missing or in danger.
That was never the case.
"I never said that the Russians were
lost, as [other news organizations] indicated," John Priscu, an
American microbiologist and veteran Antarctic researcher who has
been in intermittent contact with St. Petersburg during the
2011-2012 field season, told OurAmazingPlanet in an email.
After more than a decade of work, and at
least two seasons when the team came agonizingly close to reaching
Lake Vostok, today's announcement was a welcome one, and coincides
with Russia's Day of Science, celebrated on Feb. 8.
"This achievement of Russian polar
researchers and engineers has been a wonderful gift," concluded
the press release from the Arctic and Antarctic Research
When asked if, after so many years, it
was exciting to finally reach Lake Vostok, Lesenkov replied in
"Da," he said. "Yes."
It did sound as though he was smiling.