Mysteries of the Ancient Waters

By: Staff Reporter
Penetrating Lake Vostok in Antarctica, without mitigating the potential sources of contamination is likely to jeopardise the pristine nature of the Lake which makes it unique. The lubricants and anti-freeze used to bore a hole through the ice to reach the waters below may taint the very microorganisms that scientists are trying to discover.
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Lake Vostok, the largest sub-glacial lake stretched over 10,000 km2, is located beneath Russia’s Vostok station. In July 1983 temperatures here plummeted to -89oC, the coldest ever recorded temperature on earth. The overlying ice cover of the Lake has indicated paleoclimatic records 400,000 years old, and the Lake water 4000 m below is said to be isolated for 15 to 25 million years, suggesting that its environment may be home to unique ‘extremophiles’, never seen before – making Lake Vostok one of the world’s most mysterious places. In 1955-56 the First Soviet Antarctic Expedition hypothesised the existence of a subglacial lake in the region, but its presence was confirmed only in 1993 with the ERS-1 Laser Altimetry study by J.P. Ripley. Ever since, scientists and researchers from Russia and other countries, have repeatedly made attempts to explore the secret world of the Antarctic.

It is surreal for liquid water to be present in this location, but scientists theorise that it is possible for water to be in its liquid state under the thick ice cover overlying the region working as an insulating blanket coupled with geothermal heat melting the bottom of the ice sheet.

In 1989, French, Russian and American scientists began drilling through the ice sheet above the Lake, which was stopped just 130 m from the Lake surface to avoid contaminating it from antifreeze and kerosene used as the drilling fluid. In 2006-07 a Russian team attempted to break into the Lake ignoring the proposal from an international panel to drill a new, cleaner hole using a self-sterilising ‘cryobot’.

A group of researchers claim to have found organisms in the samples of refrozen lake water known as ‘accretion ice’ – but it has been questioned by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) in Bremen, Germany, by molecular biologist Sergey Bulat of the Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute, Russia, claiming that these microbes are nothing but contaminants. Yet others are reserving judgement on the issue. Bulat and colleagues also believe there are no bacteria in the ice because the lake is too toxic to support life.

For three decades now Russia has been leading the exploration of Lake Vostok. They reevaluated their equipment and technology to make sure they were not putting Lake Vostok at risk of contamination. In 2003-04 Russia was asked to prepare a Comprehensive Environmental Evaluation (CEE) of the implications and mitigation measures they would take to reduce the risks of drilling. A CEE report is mandatory and is to be submitted before any potentially damaging activities in Antarctic for other parties to review and to ensure safety of the mission.

Russia continued drilling operations during the CEE process and by the 2007 Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) Russia had completed all steps in the CEE process under the rules of the Environmental Protocol. Russia improved its operations, but continued to use the same borehole. In a recent report dated 8 February 2012, Russian researchers claimed to have successfully reached the surface of the Lake at a depth of 3,768 m. It is said that the Russian team is now concentrating to safely obtain a water sample – however the issue of contamination still remains active. Russian scientists reportedly will wait for a column of water to rise up through the borehole and freeze to access it and has planned to collect the samples from December this year to January 2013. Scientists from Britain and USA suggest that any drilling activity in the region must wait until new innovative methods are introduced, like hot water drilling to help save the Lake. Russia argues that the energy supplying stations in the regions are incapable of generating sufficient power for such a process.

The Russians already have great plans for their future exploration of Lake Vostok, by way of collecting water samples at different depths using of a swimming robot. They will submit the CEE for this project at the Antarctic Treaty meeting in May, 2012.

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