The moment that many in the Earth science community have been waiting for has come. Actually, it occurred over the weekend: On Sunday, February 5 at approximately 11:25 am ET, a Russian drill broke through to a prehistoric subglacial lake located more than 2 miles below the surface of Antarctica, Russian state news outlet Ria Novosti reported.
It was the first time in 15 to 34 million years that any outside light or air have hit Lake Vostok, according to the New York Times.
Vostok, Russian for “East,” is the largest of Antarctica’s at least 150 subglacial lakes, which are thought to have formed due to relative warmth emitted from the friction of layers of ice grinding over one another.
Vostok is 160 miles long and 30 miles across, according to the Associated Press.
“I think it’s fair to compare this project to flying to the moon,” said Valery Lukin, head of the mission and the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI), the Associated Press reported.
Indeed, Russian scientists believe that water samples from the lake will be useful in climate science, giving us a picture of what the Earth was like millions of years ago.
Even more exciting is the prospect that the lake contains perfectly preserved or independently evolved life forms, likely microbial, giving hope to the idea that similar or analogous lifeforms could be found in outer space under the frozen lakes on Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus.
There was some evidence of microbial lifeforms in ice core samples of frozen lake water that were obtained in the 1990s, after the drilling mission into Lake Vostok began in earnest, according to The New York Times. But the paper explains that these findings were disputed, as the evidence could have come from another source, perhaps contamination by the drilling operation.
Promisingly, ice core samples from above the lake dated to about 400,000 years ago were previously found to contain “weird” new microbial lifeforms resembling Mickey Mouse and the Klingons from Star Trek, according to NASA scientist Richard Hoover, who was working at the Vostok station back in 1998.
Scientific drilling into the region began in the 1989, but the existence of Lake Vostok itself wasn’t established until 1996, according to French news agency AFP.
Although there were initial reports on Monday that Russia’s research team had reached the lake, expedition leader Lukin told Nature at the time that it was too early to say for certain whether the goal had been achieved, pending further data analysis from drill sensors.
Ria Novosti described the moment of impact as follows:
The bore only slightly touched the lake’s surface. At that moment, sensors detected a sharp increase in pressure. Water started rushing up from the lake; it covered the chemicals and quickly froze, sealing out the toxic chemicals, researchers said. “About 1.5 cubic meters of liquid [lubricants and antifreeze] rushed out of the boreshaft… and later it was pumped into barrels on the surface.”
Indeed, the use of “toxic chemicals” to lubricate the drilling operation and prevent the machinery from freezing has been an issue throughout the process. Ria Novosti pointed out that the drilling team switched from using kerosene as antifreeze to Freon, which is less environmentally damaging, after concerns were raised by scientists and environmental groups of possible contamination of the underground lake water.
Now scientists will have the opportunity to study the actual subglacial liquid lake up close. But they will have to wait another 10 months, until December 2012, after the harshest conditions of Antarctica’s long winter have passed, to resume the operations, according to The Arizona Star.
Chart by Clayton Ashley