In scientific coup, Russians reach Antarctic lake
Opening a scientific frontier miles under the Antarctic ice, Russian experts drilled down and finally reached the surface of a gigantic freshwater lake, an achievement the mission chief likened to placing a man on the moon.
Lake Vostok could hold living organisms that have been locked in icy darkness for some 20 million years, as well as clues to the search for life elsewhere in the solar system. Touching the surface of the lake, the largest of nearly 400 subglacial lakes in Antarctica, came after more than two decades of drilling, and was a major achievement avidly anticipated by scientists around the world.
The Russian team made contact with the lake water Sunday at a depth of 12,366 feet, about 800 miles east of the South Pole in the central part of the continent. Valery Lukin, the head of Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, said reaching the lake was akin to the Americans winning the space race in 1969. "I think it's fair to compare this project to flying to the moon," said Lukin, who oversaw the mission and announced its success.
At 250 kilometers long and 50 kilometers wide, Lake Vostok is similar in size to Lake Ontario. It is kept from freezing into a solid block by the more than two-mile-thick crust of ice across it that acts like a blanket, keeping in heat generated by geothermal energy underneath.
Temperatures on the Vostok Station on the surface above the lake have registered the coldest ever recorded on Earth, reaching minus 128 degrees Fahrenheit. Conditions were made even tougher by its high elevation, more than 11,000 feet above sea level.
Lukin said Russia had waited several years for international approval of its drilling technology before proceeding. He said that, as anticipated, lake water under pressure rushed up the bore hole, pushing the drilling fluid up and away, then froze, forming a protective plug that will prevent contamination of the lake.
"The Russian team share our mission to understand subglacial lake environments and we look forward to developing collaborations with their scientists and also those from the U.S. and other nations, as we all embark on a quest to comprehend these pristine, extreme environments," Siegert said in an email.