Russians hope to reach Lake Vostok for the first time soon

Jan 10, 2011 by Lin Edwards report
Russians hope to reach Lake Vostok for the first time soon
RADARSAT image of Lake Vostok. Image: NASA.

(PhysOrg.com) -- Lake Vostok, an untouched lake in Antarctica, is soon to be reached for the first time. Russian scientists are drilling down to the oxygen-rich lake, which is buried beneath a sheet of ice almost four kilometers thick, and extract water samples for analysis.

Lake Vostok is approximately 250 kilometers long and up to 50 kilometers wide (around the size of Lake Ontario in North America), and is up to 800 meters deep. It is isolated from all the other 145 or so subglacial lakes in . The lake has been sealed off from the rest of the world by the ice sheet for at least 14 million years.

Earlier plans to into the lake were squashed by the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat (ATS) because of concerns the lake might become contaminated. A team of astrobiologists from concluded in 2003 that such an exploration could be dangerous and lead to contamination because the high oxygen and nitrogen content of the lake would cause the water to “fizz up” like a shaken soda can. Now, the ATS has approved the environmental evaluation for the new attempt by scientists from the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI) in St. Petersburg.

AARI spokesman Valery Lukin, Director of the Russian Antarctic Expedition (RAE), said they have invented a way of sampling the lake without the risk of contamination. When the drill reaches the lake, the water pressure will “push the working body and drilling fluid upwards in the borehole,” where it will freeze. The researchers will then return during the next Antarctic summer to remove the frozen water for analysis.

Panoramic photo of Vostok Station showing the layout of the camp. Credit: Todd Sowers LDEO, Columbia University, Palisades, New York.

Lake Vostok is supersaturated with oxygen, with levels estimated to be around 50 times greater than an average freshwater lake. Lukin said the researchers hope to find live organisms in the lake, particularly in the mineralized water near the bottom. If life does exist there, the organisms would be “extremophiles,” with many adaptations to allow them to survive. If life is found in the lake, this would have implications for the possibilities of life on Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s satellite Enceladus, both of which have a similar environment.

The Russian team are unsure when their drill will break through because the exact depth of the ice/water boundary is not known, but hope they will reach the water later this month and before the current Antarctic summer season ends. Their borehole is currently 3650 meters deep, which is estimated to be approximately 100 meters above the lake surface. The next stages will use a mechanical drill and kerosene freon to get down to 3725 meters, and a new thermal drill head with a clean silicon-oil fluid to drill the rest of the way. The thermal drill head will be fitted with a camera. They are able to drill around four meters a day.

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User comments : 17

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kevinrtrs
1.2 / 5 (28) Jan 10, 2011
at least 14 million years.

There's a big surprise waiting for scientists having this age in mind. There'll be items in the lake that defy such a long period and it'll turn out to be more like 4000 years, or at least of the order of thousands not millions of years. The reason? simply that the one big ice age that most probably occurred was triggered by super saturated hot springs that caused the global flood a few thousand years ago.

TheGhostofOtto1923
3.3 / 5 (24) Jan 10, 2011
at least 14 million years.

There's a big surprise waiting for scientists having this age in mind. There'll be items in the lake that defy such a long period and it'll turn out to be more like 4000 years, or at least of the order of thousands not millions of years. The reason? simply that the one big ice age that most probably occurred was triggered by super saturated hot springs that caused the global flood a few thousand years ago.

Haaahaa heeheeee. And when kevins prophesy does not come to pass, he will conjure up something just as preposterous to explain it.
Skeptic_Heretic
4.4 / 5 (17) Jan 10, 2011
at least 14 million years.

There's a big surprise waiting for scientists having this age in mind. There'll be items in the lake that defy such a long period and it'll turn out to be more like 4000 years, or at least of the order of thousands not millions of years. The reason? simply that the one big ice age that most probably occurred was triggered by super saturated hot springs that caused the global flood a few thousand years ago.

Except there's no geologic record of that, and the people that existed prior to 4000 years ago have no mention of it within their written record. Grow up.
LariAnn
4.2 / 5 (15) Jan 10, 2011
This is exciting research to be sure! I am curious as to how the lake became supersaturated with oxygen, however. If the lake has never been sampled, how could this be known at the present point in this research?
Chef
4.5 / 5 (8) Jan 10, 2011
Talk about ice fishing. I wonder if there is a small thermal vent with bacterium living off it producing the oxygen levels. Could be a nice test bed for exploring Europa.
Shootist
3.7 / 5 (9) Jan 10, 2011
Where did the O2 come from? On Earth O2 is, mostly, a byproduct of chlorophyllic life, oxidizes most anything it touches and if not continuously produce will sequester itself out of the environment in fairly short order.

I rather hope the dissolved gases are of such magnitude that they blow the drilling rig sky high.

Can't wait for the O2 isotope readings. And much more. This is exciting in a way most measurement is not.
GaryB
not rated yet Jan 10, 2011
I just hope they don't F-up and contaminate the lake and thus ruin what could be great science.
Skepticus
1.5 / 5 (6) Jan 11, 2011
All this drilling is stupid. Prepare a long electrically-heated cable powered from a source on the ground, which also powers the heaters around the probe. The last tens of meters of smaller heated cable will be unwound from the probe itself (limited by the size of the probe). This way there will be no contamination and fizzling danger whatsoever. With controllable heating zones along the thicker part of the cable, the whole probe and cable will melt into the ice, with ice refrozen behind when done. When the whole (heated) thicker length is played out and the probe is appoaching the target depth, the heating is switched to the probe only as it plays out its on board cable until broaching the liquid surface of the lake.Communicaltion cables integrated in the heater cables will provide data uplink. When all is finished, just turn the heat back on, the probe withdraws its onboard cable, then heating the entire length of thicker part of cable and probe, pulling it up as the ice melts.
Jonseer
3.9 / 5 (7) Jan 11, 2011
All this drilling is stupid. Prepare a long electrically-heated cable powered from a source on the ground, which also powers the heaters around the probe. The last tens of meters of smaller heated cable will be unwound from the probe itself (limited by the size of the probe).....


RIIIGHT.

Left out of your "great idea" is how to handle the logistics of getting it to Lake Vostok.

You description reads like that part of the world is no more difficult no more remote than your backyard.
AngryMoose
3 / 5 (1) Jan 11, 2011
I'll bet they find a coke can or a shopping trolley down there.
UleeUggams
5 / 5 (1) Jan 11, 2011
Is this all for a new energy drink
AJvN
4 / 5 (1) Jan 11, 2011
What possibility they find liquid gas not water
Skeptic_Heretic
1 / 5 (2) Jan 11, 2011
What possibility they find liquid gas not water
Zero.
Skepticus
1 / 5 (3) Jan 11, 2011
RIIIGHT.
Left out of your "great idea" is how to handle the logistics of getting it to Lake Vostok.

You description reads like that part of the world is no more difficult no more remote than your backyard.


And you know for a fact that the drilling rig is easily carried in their back packs, in comparison to my proposed relocatable power generator for the whole setup?
frass
not rated yet Jan 13, 2011
This is exciting research to be sure! I am curious as to how the lake became supersaturated with oxygen, however. If the lake has never been sampled, how could this be known at the present point in this research?


There's lots of ways to tell what's below something without drilling into it. How do you think they do oil wells in the ocean? They don't go around drilling random holes. They shoot charged particles through the ground and the interactions/photons that come back can help determine the make up of what's below the ground.
I'm not sure what they used to theorize the make up of the lake, but there are other methods too.
Zander
not rated yet Jan 16, 2011
What possibility they find liquid gas not water
Zero.


negligible* :P
LincolnSixEcho
5 / 5 (1) Jan 17, 2011
Megatron is down there