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Lake Vostok is (Almost) Breached After 20 Million Years

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Satellite composite showing location of Vostok within the Antarctic continent (NASA)

Two and a half miles beneath the surface of Antarctica’s central Eastern ice sheet is a body of water 160 miles by 30 miles across known as Lake Vostok, after the Vostok research station above it, built by the former Soviet Union in 1957 and now operated by Russia.

Even by Antarctic standards it’s a brutal place, with the dubious honor of holding the record for the lowest measured temperature anywhere on the planet, a mind-if-not-body numbing -129 F or -89 C. Performing any kind of mechanical or scientific work in this environment is an immense challenge.

For the past 14 years a hole has been gradually drilled down from this location into the ancient layers of ice. Each short summer season allowing for a little more progress. Hints that there could be a vast sub-surface body of water arose in the 1950′s and 60′s. Ground penetrating radar later confirmed these suggestions – and Lake Vostok, with 1,300 cubic miles liquid water, was revealed some 2.5 miles below the ice (although only 500 meters below planetary sea-level).

Radar image of Lake Vostok (Satellite imagery, NASA)

It quickly became clear that this was an environment sealed away from Earth’s surface, and although the water in the lake may itself be slowly changed out by the deep ice-dynamics of Antarctica, this process could take well over 10,000 years. It is also possible that hydrostatic sealing has kept the lake truly isolated for millions of years.

So what’s happening in Lake Vostok? We don’t know. Devoid of light but likely bursting with supersaturated oxygen and other gases, Vostok has long been speculated to be a potential habitat for unique ecosystems of extremophilic microbial life (and who knows what else). Despite the clear risks of contaminating what may be a pristine and fragile environment, Russian scientists have now, after more than a decade, drilled to the top of the lake (see this BBC news item for example, and this report in Nature). Water samples are now going to be extracted by lowering the pressure from the drill rig (and getting, we hope, all the nasty kerosene lubricant and anti-freeze out of the system), and then given full biological and chemical analysis.

It’s tremendously exciting just as it’s also tremendously worrying that we will have messed up yet another irreplaceable ecosystem. Forward contamination of planets, as I wrote about in my last post, can happen right here under our (frozen) noses. However, if we’re lucky then what we’ll learn about the lost world of Lake Vostok may provide scientific impetus to get ourselves to one of the extraordinary sub-surface oceans that exist elsewhere in our solar system, from the Jovian moons Europa and Ganymede, to the geyser-spouting mysteries of distant Enceladus. It’s possible that what’s happening at Vostok Station today is the beginning of our next chapter in the search for life in the universe.

And, an added postscript, an excellent diagram of the vertical/horizontal structure of the lake and its surroundings.


Caleb A. Scharf About the Author: Caleb Scharf is the director of Columbia University's multidisciplinary Astrobiology Center. He has worked in the fields of observational cosmology, X-ray astronomy, and more recently exoplanetary science. His books include Gravity's Engines (2012) and The Copernicus Complex (2014) (both from Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) Follow on Twitter @caleb_scharf.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Postman1 7:59 pm 02/6/2012

    Has anyone made contact with the crew at Vostok station in the past week?

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  2. 2. caleb_scharf 8:06 pm 02/6/2012

    It’s a bit unclear, comms are presumably pretty bad at the best of times owing to the reliance on either radio or satellites (which are low on the horizon), with winter encroaching it must be worse. The unconfirmed noises from the Russian media outlets suggested that there was contact – hence the indication that the drilling was on the verge of breaking through, which would certainly tally with their hoped for timetable – puncture the lake ceiling, let water come up the drill hole a way and freeze, then retrieve the core next season (later in 2012).

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  3. 3. Postman1 9:20 pm 02/6/2012

    Caleb – Thank you. Sure seems like, after the failure to contact them last week, they would come out with a public announcement. I wouldn’t wonder as much, except 1)this is Russia and 2)It is darn cold down there. We can all hope they are well.

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  4. 4. Glendon Mellow 11:26 pm 02/6/2012

    That “echo-free” zone – is that an empty space, like air or gases trapped above the lake?

    Maybe I’ve read At The Mountains of Madness by Lovecraft too many times, but I’m imagining big scary monster penguins living in a ruined city right now.

    Link to this
  5. 5. 12:42 am 02/7/2012

    wow, wow, wow. so exciting.

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  6. 6. caleb_scharf 12:09 pm 02/7/2012

    My understanding of “echo free” in this context is that it’s to do with the fine scale structure of the ice itself – resulting in a low sonar/radar reflection. I think it’s a sign of material that has less well defined layers (that otherwise bounce sound/radio back coherently). So it’s not a big hollow, but rather a zone of more finely structured, less ordered ice.

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  7. 7. caleb_scharf 7:05 pm 02/8/2012

    Reports now indicate confirmation that on Sunday 5th Feb Lake Vostok was penetrated – pressure surge suggests the ‘seal’ was indeed broken, see for example

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