After drilling into Lake Vostok for over two decades, Russian scientists have confirmed that they reached the mysterious freshwater lake that was sealed beneath over two miles of Antarctic ice.
After decades of drilling, Russian scientists in the arctic have uncovered a rare piece of nature, an ancient lake buried thousands of feet under the ice. RT's Sean Thomas, toured the frozen continent exactly a year ago, and now explains what this discovery could mean.
Beneath the vast white landscape, Lake Vostok is the deepest and most isolated of Antarctica's subglacial lakes. Its size compares to Siberia's Lake Baikal or one of the Great Lakes, increasing the chance of biodiversity in its waters. Scientists estimate the body of water is roughly 1 million years old and supersaturated with oxygen, resembling no other known environment on Earth. John Priscu of Montana State University suspects that an oasis of life may lurk there, teeming around thermal vents.
A radar satellite image of the ice over Lake Vostok, a freshwater lake with a surface area of 14,000 square kilometres, that is under 4 kilometres of ice (Click Image To Enlarge)
Although reports on Lake Vostok came in Monday, the feat was not confirmed for two days. The Associated Press wrote Wednesday morning that according to a statement by Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, its team reached Lake Vostok on Sunday.
Russian news source RT reports that the scientists were able to retrieve 40 liters of water from Lake Vostok which they are taking home in sterile containers to test.
Lake Vostok, which hasn't been touched by light in millions of years, has been a target of scientific exploration because of the unique lifeforms it may contain.
"The discovery has been avidly anticipated by scientists around the world, who hope that the lake, comparable in area to Lake Ontario, may contain microbial life and provide a clue in the search for life on other planets in similar conditions."
According to Wired, Lake Vostok likely contains 50 times the amount of oxygen found in a typical freshwater lake. The conditions in the lake "are thought to be similar" to Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's Enceladus.
Despite the excitement surrounding the Russians' accomplishment, the project was not without environmental fears. The Washington Post explained that concerns exist that Lake Vostok "could be contaminated by the kerosene, Freon and other materials being used in the drilling."
"Russian researchers have argued that the water from the lake would rush up the borehole driven by a jump in pressure, safely sealing pollutants."
Russia's RT writes that drilling liquids did not enter Lake Vostok. They explained,
"The lake water, rising up to 40 meters due to under-pressure in the crack, pushed the drilling liquid back onto the surface."
Even with the concerns, the Russians' accomplishment at Lake Vostok has excited the scientific community. John Priscu, an Antarctic specialist at Montana State University, told The Washington Post,
"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."
The Russian operation is also significant because of the surface conditions which the scientists endured. The area above Lake Vostok is one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. The lowest ever temperature on Earth, negative 128 degrees Fahrenheit (-82 C) was recorded there in 1983, according to the BBC.
In comparison, the temperature outside a commercial jetliner at a cruising altitude of around 35,000 feet is only about negative 69 degrees Fahrenheit.
COMMENTARY: This is an incredible feat and if the Russians are able to successfully retrieve water from Lake Vostok after all these millions of years, and discover living microbes, sea life or other forms of life, the 20 years they spent drilling, would all be worth it. We could end up discovering new species of life that existed in prehistoric times before Man walked on Earth.
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. Martin Siegert, head of the University of Edinburgh's School of Geosciences, said.
"This is scientific exploration, this is work that no one has ever done before. This is probably one of the last frontiers on our planet that remains largely unknown to us."
Siegert is leading a British expedition to explore Lake Ellsworth in West Antarctica in 2012-2013.
The British camp at the Lake Ellsworth drilling site as a team of British engineers have completed the first phase of a project to explore an ancient subglacial lake buried 1.8 miles beneath the ice in Antarctica (Click Image To Enlarge)
There's obvious cause for concern by British and American scientists that the Russians may release living microbes that may be harmful or dangerous to Man. Let's hope that the Russians don't fuck this up.