Drilling Into Lake Vostok
Russian scientists hope this week to drill into lake Vostok, a lake buried beneath the ice of Antarctica. And not just a lake, Lake Vostok is one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world, about the size of Lake Ontario, but about three times as deep. It’s covered by two miles of Antarctic ice cap, for Lake Vostok is very near the South Pole and is in one of the coldest spots on the world. And now, after two decades of drilling, Russian scientists are about to punch through the ice into the lake itself and get samples.
Wait, two decades? Yes, humans got men to the moon faster than it has taken them to get to Lake Vostok, How does it take two decades to drill through a few miles of ice? Well, for one thing, the annual summer drilling season in Antarctica is about four hours long. OK, a few weeks long, but the gentle reader gets the point. Also, and more importantly, there has been a lot of delay due to concerns about just how to penetrate the lake itself. Scientists want to get pristine samples, they don’t want to contaminate the lake, and since the lake seems to have a lot of gas dissolved in it at high pressure … they want to avoid a catastrophic scenario akin to shaking a can of soda and then opening it. That would be a bad thing, possibly both contaminating the lake and the samples, while destroying the borehole and maybe even causing an ecological disaster. Yikes, keeping my fingers crossed for sure.
OK, so a lake in a deep freeze, what’s the big deal? Well, for one thing there are a whole series of lakes under the Antarctic ice, almost certainly connected somehow. So geologists want to know all they can about these lakes, partly just because they are unique, and as part and parcel of understanding the entire Antarctic Ice Cap. Which is part of ongoing scientific efforts to understand the Earth itself and its’ climate and climate cycles. Not to mention that if the Antarctic Ice Caps collapsed into the oceans, it would be a very bad thing. So, not a bad idea for scientists to figure out what’s going on under the ice.
The exciting part, at least for non-geologists, is what might be living in Lake Vostok. It was a real live genuine lake at one time, before it got covered with ice. How long ago did it get covered with ice? About 14 million years as far as scientists can figure, though if they get good water samples they will be able to put a far more accurate date on it. This means that whatever life was in those lakes may have been evolving quietly away in an environment completely unlike any other on Earth. And it’s pretty much a certainty that there will be life in the lake, since hydrogen sulphide eating microbes have been found in the ice above the lake. The deep biosphere, yet another topic for a future post.
So anyhow, weird microbes, anything else? I mean, really, I’ve watched enough sci fi to know that when they drill through the ice, giant intelligent man-eating ice amoebas will emerge and attack the Russian drilling crew, I hope some of them are armed. OK, that’s pretty unlikely. Still, these lakes might have geothermal vents, and just like oceanic geothermal vents, there might be communities of all sorts of strange worms and crustaceans living happily away. Sadly, it will be awhile before we know about that, I don’t know if plans are even afoot to send any sort of ROV down and actually explore the lake. Still, it is the ultimate goal, and the current project is developing the technology for eventually doing just that.
And while this step may not be all that exiting from a non-scientific view, though I hope some people think it’s cool, this is also a stepping stone to a far more exciting lake drilling project. Antarctica isn’t the only place with with bodies of water under ice, several moons and at least one asteroid, Ceres, are believed to very likely harbour oceans of water under their ice. And god only knows what could be living under there. Even if life didn’t independently originate there, there’s every reason to believe that pretty much every body in the solar system has been “seeded” by bacteria laden rocks blasted from Earth by comet and asteroid impacts. And with millions or hundreds of millions of years to evolve in pretty much a totally alien environment … I might get my giant man-eating ice amoebas yet!
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. Image by Nicolle Rager-Fuller/National Science Foundation. I’m not sure why I chose that image, the pretty colours perhaps. I mean, it’s not like it’s a difficult thing to visualize. I don’t know what the red arrows are, ice amoeba migration routes? I’ll do better tomorrow, I promise.)