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First Lake Reached in Antarctica … Below Ice

February 9th, 2012

Satellite photo of Lake Vostok's outline. Photo credit: NASA via Wikimedia Commons

When most of us think of Antarctica we think of endless miles of solid ice. It turns out that’s not exactly the case. At least not two miles below the surface in East Antarctica in a place called Vostok.

After drilling for over a decade, Russian scientists announced this week that they successfully drilled down to reach one of the largest fresh water lakes on Earth … under the ice.

Lake Vostok, about the size of New Jersey, hasn’t seen sunlight or air for possibly around 20 million years !

Image credit: US National Science Foundation via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

This is a big deal because no one’s done it before.

“It’s like exploring another planet, only this one is ours.”Robin Bell, a glaciologist with Columbia University in the U.S. said in an AP article.

It also has huge possibilities for science. Scientists will study samples of this water in search of life –not big swimming fish so much as microscopic organisms too small to see. If they find them, it means that life can form and exist in ways we weren’t sure were possible. Two miles under the coldest recorded spot on the planet (-128.6 Farenheit/-89.2 degrees Celcius in 1983!), without sunlight or air, for millions of years, is about as extreme as an environment can get. (To learn more about Antarctica, click here  for a great site).

Finding microbes in Lake Vostok could have ramifications all the way to the planet Jupiter, where one of its moons (Europa) is believed to have similar sub-glacial lakes. If life is found in Lake Volstok deep under Antarctica, it could mean there’s life “out there”, too. Whether life exists beyond planet Earth is something people have been trying to figure out for a long time, and this could go a long way toward that. It’s amazing that something too small to be seen with the eye could answer such big questions about our Universe.

Collecting the water samples from Lake Vostok, reports say, will have to wait. The Antarctic winter is settling in now making it too difficult. Just being there isn’t easy and figuring out a way to drill through the ice without the drill bit freezing over was already an accomplishment.

More importantly, scientists want to make sure they don’t contaminate this preserved ancient lake. It would ruin the science … and be unfortunate for the lake so perfectly kept for millions of years. Environmentalists believe drilling and sampling will contaminate it, if it hasn’t already.

This seems to be just the beginning though. It turns out there are nearly 300 more lakes under the continental ice sheets … and therefore more to explore. The United States has its sights set a lake there next season, according to The New York Times .

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