Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Scientists Close to Entering Vostok, Antarctica’s Biggest Subglacial Lake by Marc Kaufman

After drilling for two decades through more than two miles of antarctic ice, Russian scientists are on the verge of entering a vast, dark lake that hasn’t been touched by light for more than 20 million years.

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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