Russian Scientists Penetrate Antarctic Subglacial Lake Vostok for the First Time

A graphic shows the location of Lake Vostok and the depth of the subglacial body of water. Satellite image of Lake Vostok.

By Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Sun Editor: Reports this week confirm that Russian scientists have penetrated a lake buried deep under an ice sheet in remote East Antarctica after about two decades of drilling. This is the first time scientists have successfully accessed a subglacial lake. Lake Vostok is believed to be the largest of several hundred such under-ice lakes around Antarctica, about the size of Lake Ontario. Scientists are hopeful they may find life in the freshwater body that has been isolated from the environment for possibly millions of years.

Russia's Vostok Station in 2001. The station was founded in December 1957 during the International Geophysical Year. Years later, scientists realized a large subglacial lake existed below. Russian researchers reportedly penetrated the lake in early February 2012. Photo Credit: Todd Sowers/LDEO, Columbia University

"Their efforts will transform the way we do science in Antarctica and provide us with an entirely new view of what exists under the vast Antarctic ice sheet," said John Priscu , a professor of ecology at Montana State University in Bozeman, in various onlinGraphic: Nicolle Rager-Fuller / NSF

RADARSAT image of Lake Vostok. Photo Credit: NASA

Priscu was the lead author on the first paper published about life in Lake Vostok in the journal Science in 1999, using ice cores drilled from above the lake. He is currently the chief scientist on a U.S. Antarctic Program project, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) , to explore a subglacial water system in West Antarctica called WISSARD, for Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling.

The British Antarctic Survey is also attempting to access the subglacial Lake Ellsworth in West Antarctica. [See recent BAS press release]

Some researchers have expressed concern over possible contamination of Lake Vostok by the drilling fluid used by the Russian team. In the end, the Russians flooded the bottom of the hole with Freon and used a heated drill tip for the final boring effort. In theory, the water pressure from the lake would flood the bottom of the hole without allowing any drill fluid to enter the lake, quickly freezing into a plug that scientists can later carefully drill through next year.

Alison Murray is a molecular microbial ecologist at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev., who has studied life in the ice-covered lakes at the surface in Antarctica's McMurdo Dry Valleys. In 2010-11, she and colleagues drilled into frozen Lake Vida, a super salty lake with a bizarre chemistry that appears to be nearly frozen solid, except for a briny liquid that percolates through the ice. Like Vostok, scientists believe any microorganisms living in the lake might hint at the sort of life that exists on other worlds and moons.

Members of the Lake Vida expedition team use stringent procedures to ensure drilling does not contaminate the frozen body of water. Photo Credit: Ema Kuhn

To avoid contamination of Lake Vida, Murray's team set up stringent protocols to keep the drill site and equipment clean, including sterilizing equipment as if they were surgical tools and dosing instruments with ultraviolet radiation for good measure.

"Though the scale of our study system is shallow, small and young in geological time in comparison to most subglacial lakes, and Vostok in particular, the awareness of environmental stewardship has been held high, and we have been fortunate to test new approaches in this much more accessible system," she said via email.

"Drilling into Lake Vostok presents probably the most complicated of subglacial lakes to access due to the long duration of the drilling project, depth of ice and movement of the ice sheets overlying the lake," she added. "Even though the real advances in science following penetration of Lake Vostok and accessing water samples remain to be seen, this is a significant mark in history, and will open doors to understanding past climate, life and adaptations required for survival in this massive isolated body of water."

In a BBC report on Feb. 8, Valery Lukin, director of Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in St Petersburg, said, "This fills my soul with joy. ... This will give us the possibility to biologically evaluate the evolution of living organisms ... because those organisms spent a long time without contact with the atmosphere, without sunlight."

The scientists penetrated the lake just before the end of the Antarctic summer field season. Researchers are expected to return to the research base at Vostok Station in late 2012 when summer returns for further work on the subglacial lake.

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