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Russian drillers reach ancient Antarctic lake

Scientists and drillers at Antarctica’s Vostok station have finally achieved a breakthrough in their 20-year quest to reach an ancient freshwater lake under two miles of ice. Lake Vostok, which is roughly the size of Lake Ontario, has been isolated from the Earth’s atmosphere for some 20 million years.

Racing to complete the project during the relatively short Antarctic drilling window, researchers broke through to liquid water on February 4.

It is hoped that previously unknown life forms may exist in the frigid water, giving insights into what freshwater lakes may have been like during the Miocene period before the ice age. Not only have the lake’s waters not been exposed to air during that time, but no sunlight has reached these depths since the continent first became glaciated.

"This fills my soul with joy," Valery Lukin of Russia' s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, which oversees the project, told the BBC. "This will give us the possibility to biologically evaluate the evolution of living organisms . . . because those organisms spent a long time without contact with the atmosphere, without sunlight.”

Some scientists have expressed fear that the lubricants and antifreeze used during the drilling process may contaminate the lake before samples can be taken, but the Russians say that freshwater is expected to surge up the borehole in the ice and freeze into a plug, protecting the pristine water until samples can be removed next year.

There are some 300 sub-glacial lakes know to exist in Antarctica. Russian scientists discovered them in 1956 by using seismic soundings. In the 1990s, British scientists mapped the lakes using radar, discovering how extensive they really were. The lake waters are kept liquid by geothermal heat, and many are interconnected.

Vostok Station is notable as the location that recorded the lowest temperature ever measured on the Earth’s surface—89 degrees C (-128 degrees F)—in July 1983.

Another scientific team, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) plans to begin drilling into another sub-glacial lake later this year. Lake Ellsworth lies in West Antarctica on the other side of the continent. American researchers are planning a project to drill to Lake Whillans, also in West Antarctica.

02/13/2012

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