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Russian scientists bore into massive ancient lake, prompt contamination concerns

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.

By Andrea MustainOurAmazingPlanet Staff Writer / February 8, 2012

A man stands near drilling apparatus at the Vostock research camp in Antarctica in this Jan. 2006 photograph.

Alexey Ekaikin/Reuters

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It's official. Russian scientists announced today that they have reached Antarctica's 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.  

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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 Russians 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 the 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. [Antarctica's Biggest Mysteries]

Contamination concerns

Some scientists have expressed concern over the drill method the Russians are using at Lake Vostok. 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 water. 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.

Alive and well?

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 microscope.

Rumors and speculation

Today's announcement comes amid a flurry of rumors and exaggerated reporting surrounding 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 Institute.

When asked if, after so many years, it was exciting to finally reach Lake Vostok, Lesenkov replied in restrained fashion.

"Da," he said. "Yes."

It did sound as though he was smiling.

Reach Andrea Mustain at amustain@techmedianetwork.com. Follow her on Twitter @AndreaMustain. Follow OurAmazingPlanet for the latest in Earth science and exploration news on Twitter @OAPlanet and on Facebook.

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