Russia 'drills into' Antarctic subglacial lake

Feb 06, 2012 by Maria Panina
Giant icebergs surrounded by Antarrctic ice floe in Vincennes Bay. Russian researchers say they have succeeded in drilling through four kilometres (2.5 miles) of ice to the surface of a sub-glacial Antarctic lake which could yield important scientific discoveries.

A Russian team has succeeded in drilling through four kilometres (2.5 miles) of ice to the surface of a mythical subglacial Antarctic lake which could hold as yet unknown life forms, reports said Monday.

Lake Vostok is the largest subglacial lake in Antarctica and scientists want to study its eco-system which has been isolated for hundreds of thousands of years under the ice in the hope of finding previously unknown microbiological life forms.

"Our scientists completed drilling at a depth of 3,768 metres and reached the surface of the subglacial lake," an unnamed source told Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.

Sergei Lesenkov, spokesman for the Arctic and Antarctic Scientific Research Institute, told AFP in Moscow that there was the possibility of a "fundamental scientific development".

Lesenkov said that analysis of the composition of gas bubbles discovered in the ice above the lake could help climate change research.

"Because the lower layer was formed 400,000 years ago, from the composition of the gas it is possible to judge the gas composition in the atmosphere 400,000 years ago and during the time that has passed since the formation of the lake," he said.

"From there, it is possible to identify and forecast certain climatic changes in the future. This is very important."

No official announcement of the breakthrough has been made, although sources said that this was expected to come from the government.

"If it is true and it's successful, it's a milestone that's been completed. This is a major achievement for the Russians because they've been working on it for years," Professor Martin Siegert, head of the school of geosciences at the University of Edinburgh, told AFP.

He said that exploring environments such as Lake Vostok would allow scientists to discover what life forms can exist in the most extreme conditions and thus whether life could exist on some other bodies in the solar system.

There has long been excitement among some scientists that life theoretically could exist on Saturn's moon Enceladus and the Jupiter moon Europa as they are believed to have oceans, or large lakes, beneath their icy shells.

Valerie Massson-Delmotte of the climate and environment laboratory at the French Atomic Energy Commission, said Lake Vostok was of particular interest as it had been formed over the course of 400,000 years.

"There is also a strong interest from biologists to study the forms of life that could exist in these extreme conditions which have been separated from the rest of the world environment for several million years," she said.

RIA Novosti said that the possibility that the lake existed had first been suggested by a Soviet scientist in 1957. Scientific research drilling in the area started in 1989 and the lake's existence was confirmed only in 1996.

But efforts to reach its surface were suspended two years later amid fears that the process could contaminate the waters.

After developing new techniques in an attempt to ease environmental concerns, attempts to drill down through the deep ice sheet to the lake's surface resumed.

The Russian researchers intend to start drilling again and obtain water samples from the lake for analysis in December after a ten-month break due to harsh weather conditions.

The hidden lakes of the Antarctic are seen as one of the final frontiers in exploring the Earth and several teams from other nations are also engaged in similar projects.

There is still controversy over the methods used by Russia, with Western scientists expressing concern that the kerosene that has been used to prevent freezing ice from closing the borehole risks contaminating samples.

Siegert will lead a mission next year to drill into another subglacial lake in west Antarctica called Lake Ellsworth, using a different technique called hot-water drilling.

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antialias_physorg
4.3 / 5 (6) Feb 06, 2012
Because the lower layer was formed 400,000 years ago, from the composition of the gas it is possible to judge the gas composition in the atmosphere 400,000 years ago and during the time that has passed since the formation of the lake

Does the atmosphere in these bubbles remain inert? Or is there some interaction with the surounding ice which would falsify the measurements?

Either way, by making measurements at various depths one could probably establish a trend (i.e. see if there is fluctuation in various concentrations of gases) but maybe there is some baseline shift due to slow deposition/sublimation effects?

Anyhow: Interesting achievement. I wonder if there's life in Lake Vostok - and if there is: how it has evolved in all this time.
rubberman
5 / 5 (6) Feb 06, 2012
Scientific research drilling in the area started in 1989 and the lake's existence was confirmed in 1996. But efforts to reach its surface were suspended two years later amid fears that the process could contaminate the waters."

I remember this one. They stopped a few meters short of the lakes surface as the ice consistency became "slushy". They did find microbes and bacteria in the ice along with particulate matter which indicated the glacial movement over the surface of the lake. Below summarizes the initial findings.

http://www.biblio...a08b.htm

I too am very eager to hear what they find down there after this time.
Shootist
1 / 5 (4) Feb 06, 2012
amid fears that the process could contaminate the waters.


Damn funny if they find black smokers in the depths. Nothing contaminates water better than heavy metals (lead arsenic mercury, et. al.). Short of plutonium, worse than anything man can bring to bear, anyway. (hint. the smokers last for a geologic age, man's effects are as ephemeral as aerogel in a blast furnace).
gmfr
5 / 5 (13) Feb 06, 2012
amid fears that the process could contaminate the waters.


Damn funny if they find black smokers in the depths. Nothing contaminates water better than heavy metals (lead arsenic mercury, et. al.). Short of plutonium, worse than anything man can bring to bear, anyway. (hint. the smokers last for a geologic age, man's effects are as ephemeral as aerogel in a blast furnace).


I think the fear was contaminating it with surface microorganisms. This lake is possibly a very important biological time capsule.
sstritt
2.4 / 5 (5) Feb 06, 2012
amid fears that the process could contaminate the waters.


Damn funny if they find black smokers in the depths. Nothing contaminates water better than heavy metals (lead arsenic mercury, et. al.). Short of plutonium, worse than anything man can bring to bear, anyway. (hint. the smokers last for a geologic age, man's effects are as ephemeral as aerogel in a blast furnace).


I think the fear was contaminating it with surface microorganisms. This lake is possibly a very important biological time capsule.

They use kerosene in the bore shaft to prevent refreezing. that was the main fear of contamination.
GSwift7
2 / 5 (3) Feb 06, 2012
Does the atmosphere in these bubbles remain inert? Or is there some interaction with the surounding ice which would falsify the measurements?


I would be more interested in interaction with underlying earth. What if there's a petrochemical seep under the lake? The whole thing could be polluted with tar, oil, or natural gas. We know there's petrolium in the Northern Arctic, so why not in Antarctica as well? Also, what if there was life in the lake at any time after it formed, but not now. How would you know that? Samples of gas disolved in the water may not be representative of the atmosphere for a number of various reasons.
GSwift7
3.3 / 5 (4) Feb 06, 2012
Overall, the Russian track record for getting pristine samples isn't very good. I think it's a shame that they pushed forward with this, so that they could be first, even though they knew that their method was not good.

If they get samples which are contaminated with drilling fluid, it'll place extreme limits on what the samples can be used for. In fact, even if the samples are contaminated, I would be surprised if they ever admit it. They don't like to admit mistakes and failures. That creates the possibility of someone making up results to hide the problem.
Callippo
3.4 / 5 (5) Feb 06, 2012
I think the fear was contaminating it with surface microorganisms. This lake is possibly a very important biological time capsule.
Russian way of drilling is just plain stupid. The drilling project was opposed with many scientists, who argued that hot-water drilling would do less environmental damage. http://www.asoc.o...1408.pdf The Russians complained that hot-water drilling required more power than they could generate at their remote camp. Instead of it, the Russians filled the borehole with the 60 ton of glycole, freone and kerosene to prevent it from collapsing and freezing over winter. Though the Russians claim to have improved their technology, they just continued to use the same borehole, which has already been filled with kerosene. So now they're first and Putin's government has a "scientific success" attributed - but the scientific contribution of this success is disputable.
Callippo
2.1 / 5 (7) Feb 06, 2012
My private opinion is, the Russians always gave the precedence to political propaganda over ecology and this example just demonstrates it again. After all, what the Russians do seek in Vostok is the oil and natural gas - they're struggling to be first here for being able to claim their priority for future. http://www.telegr...ole.html The scientific research is secondary here.
kochevnik
1 / 5 (3) Feb 06, 2012
I think it's a shame that they pushed forward with this, so that they could be first...
Nobody remembers who came in second.
rubberman
5 / 5 (7) Feb 06, 2012
My private opinion is, the Russians always gave the precedence to political propaganda over ecology and this example just demonstrates it again. After all, what the Russians do seek in Vostok is the oil and natural gas - they're struggling to be first here for being able to claim their priority for future. http://www.telegr...ole.html The scientific research is secondary here.


Cal, Antarctica is a little bit of a trek from the homeland. You are suggesting that the goal of the russians drilling is to find oil at the bottom of this lake, to set up a rig on the ice tens of thousands of KM from russia, drill 4km through a constantly moving glacier and into a stationary lakebed , then transport this oil SOMEHOW across thousands of kilometers of ice in the most inhospitable enviroment on the planet to a non existant harbour ...it just gets better the more i think about how absurd that is dude!
Lurker2358
5 / 5 (2) Feb 06, 2012
LOL.

Yeah, I'm sure it'd be great to be working on an oil pipeline in -70C temperatures.

If you get a leak in the middle of winter, you're just screwed, because no way in hell anybody's going out to work on that in pitch dark at -70C.

Can you imagine? You'd have to be a damn astronaut in a space suit to keep from freezing to death.
GDM
2.6 / 5 (5) Feb 06, 2012
kochevnik: "Nobody remembers who came in second."

Well, I remember. It was the US! In orbiting a satellite, an animal, a human, and in returning lunar soil to the Earth, among several other things. We were 2nd in all those things. The Russians (well, the CCCP) deserve those kudos. It would be nice if you weren't so paranoid about the US and at least attempt to be a better neighbor. We are not as evil as you apparently believe. I don't think the Russians are evil, but maybe just misinformed by their own media and politicians.

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