Scientists cautious over Russia's Antarctic lake drilling

February 6, 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: Final frontier: Mission to explore buried ancient Antarctic lake given green light

Related Stories

Russians hope to reach Lake Vostok for the first time soon

January 10, 2011

(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 ...

Engineering team heads to Antarctica to explore hidden lake

October 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 ...

Russia 'drills into' Antarctic subglacial lake

February 6, 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.

Recommended for you

Ice sheets may be more resilient than thought

September 3, 2015

Sea level rise poses one of the biggest threats to human systems in a globally warming world, potentially causing trillions of dollars' worth of damages to flooded cities around the world. As surface temperatures rise, ice ...

Clues from ancient Maya reveal lasting impact on environment

September 3, 2015

Evidence from the tropical lowlands of Central America reveals how Maya activity more than 2,000 years ago not only contributed to the decline of their environment but continues to influence today's environmental conditions, ...

Climate ups odds of 'grey swan' superstorms

August 31, 2015

Climate change will boost the odds up to 14-fold for extremely rare, hard-to-predict tropical cyclones for parts of Australia, the United States and Dubai by 2100, researchers said Monday.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.