Russian team drills into 14-million-year-old Antarctic lake

The lake is the object of a years-long project to study its waters, which may house life forms new to science.

NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center - Scientific Visualization Studio; Canadian Space Agency; and RADARSAT International Inc.
Lake Vostok, spied by satellite.

Several Russian news outlets are reporting that Russian scientists have successfully drilled to Antarctica's Lake Vostok, a massive liquid lake cut off from daylight for 14 million years and buried beneath 2 miles (3.7 kilometers) of ice.

The lake is the object of a years-long project to study its waters, which may house life forms new to science.

The news appears to have originated from Ria Novosti, a state-run news agency, which ran the following quote from an unnamed source with no affiliation: "Yesterday, our scientists stopped drilling at the depth of 3,768 meters [12,362 feet] and reached the surface of the sub-glacial lake."

The same news report went on to discuss an old theory that Nazis built a secret base at Lake Vostok in the 1930s, and that German submarines brought Hitler and Eva Braun's remains to Antarctica for cloning purposes following the German surrender in World War II. 

"There are a lot of rumors going around about penetrating the lake, and we need the Russian program to make the official announcement," said John Priscu, a University of Montana microbiologist and veteran Antarctic researcher who has been involved in Lake Vostok investigations for years

"If they were successful, their efforts will transform the way we do science in Antarctica and provide us with an entirely new view of what exists under the vast Antarctic ice sheet," Priscu told OurAmazingPlanet in an email.

It appears there has been no official confirmation of the team's success. There are no press releases on the website of Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, the government agency that oversees the country's polar science expeditions.

Possible cold-loving life

Lake Vostok, about the size of Lake Ontario, is the largest lake on the icy continent. Scientists estimate the lake itself is roughly 14 million years old — the age of the ice sheet that covers it — and that the water currently in the lake is roughly 1 million years old.

Scientists believe the lake could be home to cold-loving microbial life adapted to living in total darkness. The organisms likely survive using mechanisms similar to the ever-increasing parade of creatures that have been discovered living in the total darkness of hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean, deriving energy from minerals in seafloor rocks.

Today's news follows on the heels of other unsourced reporting from American news outlets last week, which claimed the scientists were lost, and that something sinister was afoot at Vostok Station. Priscu, who has been in contact with Russian science headquarters in St. Petersburg over the course of the 2011-2012 field season, has firmly refuted such reports.

The Vostok team has been racing against the approach of Antarctica's brutal winter weather. Extreme cold can prevent aircraft from operating, and could maroon the team at the station during the total darkness and bitter temperatures of austral winter.

Temperatures have already plunged below minus 49 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 45 degrees Celsius), and Priscu said it was likely the team would need to leave by this week at the latest. [The Coldest Places on Earth]

Race to test for life

Even if the Russian team has reached the lake, they will be forced to wait until next season to actually sample the water because of the type of drill they're using, which can bring back only ice — not liquid water — from the deep borehole. The water must freeze over the Antarctic winter before researchers can lay hands on it, to see what organisms might be living in Lake Vostok.

Two other nations are mounting projects to drill into ancient Antarctic lakes hidden beneath miles of ice, and with drill technology that can fetch liquid water samples for analysis in the space of days. Both lakes are in West Antarctica, in conditions slightly less brutal than those at Vostok Station, which holds the record for coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth: minus 129 degrees F (minus 89 degrees C), in July 1983.

The British are positioned to start drilling at Antarctica's Lake Ellsworth in autumn 2012, and an American team hopes to begin drilling to the Whillans Ice Stream, a network of subglacial waterways, in January 2013.

If the Russians have indeed reached Lake Vostok this week, it could be a close contest to see who will be first to test whether life can go on in the cold darkness beneath Antarctica's ice. 

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

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