Scientists cautious over Russia's Antarctic lake drilling

Feb 06, 2012 by Richard Ingham and Christine Courcol
Prince Albert II of Monaco (3rd L) poses with the scientists of the Russia's research station Vostok near the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility and the South Geomagnetic Pole, in 2009. Experts on Monday raised questions over the scientific benefit and environmental impact of Russia's feat in drilling into a virgin lake under Antarctica's icesheet.

Experts on Monday raised questions over the scientific benefit and environmental impact of Russia's feat in drilling into a virgin lake under Antarctica's icesheet.

Kerosene, which the Russians used as to prevent the from closing up in the extremely cold depths of the icesheet, was a potential contamination risk for samples and for the pristine lake itelf, they said.

Professor Martin Siegert, head of the school of geosciences at the University of Edinburgh, said these concerns marred "a milestone... a major achievement" by Russia in drilling through to Lake Vostok.

But, he added in a phone interview, "It's very difficult for them to convince (others) that their experiment is going to be clean, when you have essentially two miles (3.5 kilometres) of kerosene to cross before you get to the lake surface."

The lake, lying at a depth of 3,768 metres (12,246 feet), has lain untouched for possibly a million years, he said.

Sub-glacial lakes are . The hope is that samples will show whether could exist in water suspected to lie beneath the frozen surface of Mars, the Saturnian moon of and Jupiter's satellite, Europa.

But Siegert cautioned that only recovering water from the top of the would give no indication about the "," meaning the enormous depth of the lake.

Nor would it say anything about the sediment on its bottom, which could hold vital clues.

And kerosene contamination could skew the samples, he feared. In the last stretch of drilling, the Russians used a more environmentally-friendly antifreeze, freon.

"I don't think there's going to be widespread contamination of the lake. But it's difficult for them to convince that the experiment is going to be clean -- and not just clean, but ultra-sterile -- with the current technique they are using."

Jean Jouzel, a scientist at France's Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), said he had "reservations" about the Vostok project and dismissed claims from Russia that the breakthrough would give insights into climate change through ancient bubbles of carbon dioxide (CO2) stored in the ice.

Deep coring of Antarctic ice has already provided historical data on stored CO2.

"From a technological point of view, the drilling is a genuine feat. But from the scientific point of view I don't think it will lead to big discoveries," he said.

"It could cause pollution, which the Russians think would be temporary and minor, but this argument has still to be proved," he said.

Jouzel said French experts had previously taken part in the drilling at Vostok with the Russians.

However, they and the Russians decided to put the project on hold, in the early days of the last decade, out of pollution concerns when the drill bit was just 120 metres (390 feet) from the lake ceiling.

Scientists working in Antarctic have to declare their projects to an international panel, comprising national academies, called the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR).

However, it is up to national authorities to give the go-ahead, Jouzel said.

Pointing to what he said was its sense of competition with Britain, Russia gave the OK to complete the drilling.

"It is a very clear case of national prestige," said Jouzel.

"National prestige thus becomes more important than the interest of the (scientific) community, which is to preserve this lake until non-polluting technology emerges," he said. "It's regrettable."

Siegert said he would shortly lead a team to drill into another subglacial lake in Antarctica called Ellsworth, using a different technique called hot-water drilling.

Under this, water heated to 90 degrees Celsius (194 degrees Fahrenheit) is used to melt ice, whose water is then filtered and heated in turn, thus acting as a drill.

It means that access is kept as clean as possible in the arduous working conditions of Antarctica, although once the hole is opened, scientists only have a day or so to recover samples before it freezes over, Siegert said.

Explore further: Clean air: Fewer sources for self-cleaning

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Russia 'drills into' Antarctic subglacial lake

Feb 06, 2012

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.

Engineering team heads to Antarctica to explore hidden lake

Oct 10, 2011

Next week a British engineering team heads off to Antarctica for the first stage of an ambitious scientific mission to collect water and sediment samples from a lake buried beneath three kilometres of solid ice. This extraordinary ...

Recommended for you

Clean air: Fewer sources for self-cleaning

11 hours ago

Up to now, HONO, also known as nitrous acid, was considered one of the most important sources of hydroxyl radicals (OH), which are regarded as the detergent of the atmosphere, allowing the air to clean itself. ...

There's something ancient in the icebox

11 hours ago

Glaciers are commonly thought to work like a belt sander. As they move over the land they scrape off everything—vegetation, soil, and even the top layer of bedrock. So scientists were greatly surprised ...

Image: Grand Canyon geology lessons on view

18 hours ago

The Grand Canyon in northern Arizona is a favorite for astronauts shooting photos from the International Space Station, as well as one of the best-known tourist attractions in the world. The steep walls of ...

First radar vision for Copernicus

18 hours ago

Launched on 3 April, ESA's Sentinel-1A satellite has already delivered its first radar images of Earth. They offer a tantalising glimpse of the kind of operational imagery that this new mission will provide ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

There's something ancient in the icebox

Glaciers are commonly thought to work like a belt sander. As they move over the land they scrape off everything—vegetation, soil, and even the top layer of bedrock. So scientists were greatly surprised ...

China says massive area of its soil polluted

A huge area of China's soil covering more than twice the size of Spain is estimated to be polluted, the government said Thursday, announcing findings of a survey previously kept secret.

Clean air: Fewer sources for self-cleaning

Up to now, HONO, also known as nitrous acid, was considered one of the most important sources of hydroxyl radicals (OH), which are regarded as the detergent of the atmosphere, allowing the air to clean itself. ...

Better thermal-imaging lens from waste sulfur

Sulfur left over from refining fossil fuels can be transformed into cheap, lightweight, plastic lenses for infrared devices, including night-vision goggles, a University of Arizona-led international team ...

Hackathon team's GoogolPlex gives Siri extra powers

(Phys.org) —Four freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania have taken Apple's personal assistant Siri to behave as a graduate-level executive assistant which, when asked, is capable of adjusting the temperature ...

Chronic inflammation linked to 'high-grade' prostate cancer

Men who show signs of chronic inflammation in non-cancerous prostate tissue may have nearly twice the risk of actually having prostate cancer than those with no inflammation, according to results of a new study led by researchers ...