From: Editor, ENN
Published February 6, 2012 08:37 AM

Ancient Lake Vostok

After 20 years of drilling, a team of Russian researchers is close to breaching the prehistoric Lake Vostok, which has been trapped deep beneath thick ice layers (2 miles thick) in Antarctica for the last 14 million years. Lake Vostok is actually the third largest lake in the world, measured by the amount of water it holds. In the early 1990s, the Russians re-created a history of the Earth's atmosphere throughout the past 400,000 years — a record of our planet's air during the past four ice ages. The lakes are rich in oxygen (making them oligotrophic), with levels of the element some 50 times higher than what would be found in your typical freshwater lake. The high gas concentration is thought to be because of the enormous weight and pressure of the continental ice cap.

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If life exists in Vostok, it will have to be an extremophile — a life form that has adapted to survive in extreme environments. The organism would have to withstand high pressure, constant cold, low nutrient input, high oxygen concentration and an absence of sunlight.

The conditions in Lake Vostok are so alien that they resembled more what might be found on another world such as Europa (Jupiter moon) or Enceladus (Saturn moon).   Life in Lake Vostok may point to how life may be elsewhere in the universe.  

Russian engineers are also planning to venture into the lake itself, with swimming robots. In the Antarctic summer of 2012 to 2013, they plan to send a robot into the lake to collect water samples and sediments from the bottom. An environmental assessment of the plan will be submitted at the Antarctic Treaty’s consultative meeting in May 2012.

There are serious concerns about drilling into the lake.  One is the that Russians have filled the hole they are drilling with more than 14,000 gallons of kerosene and Freon to prevent it from freezing shut. The Russians have engineered their system so that when they break through into the lake, water pressure from below is supposed to push the drilling fluids up the hole, rather than letting them pour into the lake and contaminate it.  Also the lake is under high pressure.  In a worst case scenario it will eject out of the drilling hole kike a geyser which will be a spectacular sight as well as resulting in the lost of the entire lake to the atmosphere.

For further information:  http://www.npr.org/2011/02/03/133441327/deep-below-antarctic-ice-lake-may-soon-see-light or http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/02/lake-vostok-drilling/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+wired%2Findex+%28Wired%3A+Index+3+%28Top+Stories+2%29%29&utm_content=Google+Reader or http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/scientists-close-to-entering-vostok-antarcticas-biggest-subglacial-lake/2012/01/27/gIQAbGX0fQ_story.html

Photo:  NASA

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