How Lake Vostok could transform our understanding of life as we know it
Russian researchers in Antarctica say they have successfully drilled through more than two miles of ice to reach a vast lake that has been sealed off from light or air for at least 14 million years. If living organisms are found in the lake, it would greatly boost hopes of finding life on other worlds.
Russia said on Wednesday it had pierced through Antarctica's frozen crust to a vast, subglacial lake that has lain untouched for at least 14 million years hiding what scientists believe may be unknown organisms and clues to life on other planets.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Antarctica: Landscape of ice
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Sealed deep under the ice sheet, Lake Vostok is one of the world's last unexplored frontiers. Scientists suspect its depths may reveal new life forms and a glimpse of the planet before the ice age.
"The 57th Russian Antarctic expedition has penetrated the waters of the subglacial Lake Vostok," Valery Lukin, head of the Russian Antarctic expedition, said in a statement.
After 20 years of stop-go drilling, the Russian team raced to chew through the final metres of ice and breached Lake Vostok in time to take the last flight out on Feb. 6 before the onset of Antarctica's harsh winter. It was here that the coldest temperature found on Earth, minus 89.2 Celsius (minus 128.6 Fahrenheit), was recorded.
Lukin said the breakthrough came on Feb. 5, on the eve of the mission's departure: "At a depth of 3,769 metres (12,365 ft) the drill bit made contact with the real body of water.
"The discovery of this lake is comparable to the first space flight in its technological complexity, its importance and its uniqueness," Lukin told Interfax.
But Russia must wait for the Antarctic summer to collect and study water samples, leaving the door open for U.S. and British missions to explore two other subglacial lakes and beat it to be the first to answer the question of whether life exists under the polar ice.
"We call it extraterrestrial life," Russian astrobiologist Sergei Bulat told Vesti 24 state television. "It will be useful to the search for life on other icy planets like Jupiter's satellite Europa."
A century after the first expeditions to the South Pole, the discovery of Antarctica's hidden network of subglacial lakes via satellite imagery in the late 1990s set off a new exploratory fervour among scientists the world over.