Russian Scientists to Sample Lake Vostok

Lake Vostok, Antarctica, showing location and scale of drilling. Image from here

A team of Russian scientists just announced that they are within 100 meters of drilling into Lake Vostok, Antarctica. Lake Vostok is about the same size as Lake Ontario, but is shut off from the rest of the world by a layer of ice more than 3 kilometers thick. The waters of the lake are about 50 times as oxygenated as typical lake or ocean water. They are also a steady -3 degrees celsius—but don’t freeze, thanks to the high pressure, which keeps the water liquid, even below the freezing point.

The average residence time of water in this lake is 13,300 years, and the lake has been isolated under the ice for at least 500,000 years. Any life found in this environment is bound to be the unique result of some extreme natural selection. There is a hope that microbes found in Lake Vostok could give us hints as to the possibility of life on Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus, both of which have ice-covered oceans.

Long cores have been taken from the ice above Lake Vostok before, but none have penetrated the ice/water boundary yet, due to fears of introducing contamination or new microbes into this pristine environment. In order to sample the lake water without introducing contamination from above, the scientists will let the pressure push water up into the bore hole, then let it refreeze, and then return later to sample the frozen water.

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