Scientists are enormously excited about what life-forms might be found there but are equally worried about contaminating the lake with drilling fluids and bacteria, and the potentially explosive “de-gassing” of a body of water that has especially high concentrations of oxygen and nitrogen.
To prevent a sudden release of gas, the Russian team will not push the drill far into the lake but just deep enough for a limited amount of water — or the slushy ice on the lake’s surface — to flow up the borehole, where it will then freeze.
Reaching Lake Vostok would represent the first direct contact with what scientists now know is a web of more than 200 subglacial lakes in Antarctica — some of which existed when the continent was connected to Australia and was much warmer. They stay liquid because of heat from the core of the planet.
“This is a huge moment for science and exploration, breaking through to this enormous lake that we didn’t even know existed until the 1990s,” said John Priscu, a researcher at Montana State University who has long been involved in antarctic research, including a study of Vostok ice cores.
“If it goes well, a breakthrough opens up a whole new chapter in our understanding of our planet and possibly moons in our solar system and planets far beyond,” he said. “If it doesn’t go well, it casts a pall over the whole effort to explore this wet underside of Antarctica.”
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