Saturday, February 4, 2012

Missing scientists mystery deepens in Frozen Antarctica by Jeremy A. Kaplan

                                                NASA photo of Lake Vostok in Antarctica

The world holds its breath, hoping for the best after six days of radio silence from Antarctica -- where a team of Russian scientists is racing the clock and the oncoming winter to dig to an alien lake far beneath the ice.

The team from Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI) have been drilling for weeks in an effort to reach isolated Lake Vostok, a vast, dark body of water hidden 13,000 ft. below the surface of the icy continent. Lake Vostok hasn't been exposed to air in more than 20 million years.

The team’s last contact with colleagues in the unfrozen world was six long days ago, and scientists from around the globe are unsure of the fate of the mission -- and the scientists themselves -- as Antarctica’s killing winter draws near.

“When you’re outside, it’s extremely cold -- minus 30, minus  40,” microbiologist Dr. David A. Pearce told “If you left your eyes open the fluid in them would start to freeze. Your nostrils would start to freeze. The moisture in your mouth would start to freeze,” he said.

Pearce heads a team from the British Antarctic Survey on a competing mission, set to plumb the depths of Lake Ellsworth, one of a string of more than 370 lakes beneath Antarctica that may soon see light for the first time since well before Fred Flintstone’s ancestors roamed the planet. But time is running out for the Russian scientists.

“They need to be out by the 6th of February,” Pearce said, when winter sets in and temperatures drop another 40 degrees centigrade. Vostok Station boasts the lowest recorded temperature on Earth: -129 degrees Fahrenheit (-89.4 degrees Celsius).

The Russian scientists have been communicating with Pearce and colleagues at a third Antarctic expedition -- a study of the subglacial Whillans Ice Stream mainly featuring U.S. scientists. The competing teams have been watching the Russians and sharing notes over the past few days, Pearce told -- yet no one knows what has happened.

“We’re all waiting with bated breath,” he said.

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