Much of the earth has been explored to some degree and its creatures documented. One of the few places that hasn’t been examined – and often consequently negatively affected – by humanity is a vast lake in the Antarctic buried under miles of ice. Well, until next week that is (perhaps).
Lake Vostok is a fresh water lake located beneath the central East Antarctic Ice Sheet. According to Wikipedia, it covers an area of 15,690 km2 (6,060 sq mi). Lake Vostok is around the same size as Lake Ontario, but is triple the volume. It’s as deep as 800 m (2,600 ft) deep at its southern end.
The possibility of the existence of the lake was raised in the late 1950’s and confirmed in the 1990’s.
The lake hasn’t been disturbed for millions of years, but that could be about to change.
A previous Russian drilling project started a decade ago related to another area of research discovered the lake lay beneath. The focus of the project then changed to drilling right down to the lake.
The Russian team reportedly only has around 10 meters (32 feet) to go before they reach the waters of Vostok. While this may only take days to drill through, the Russians are racing against time. Temperatures at the project site are already 40 below zero and the scientists only have days before they’ll need to leave the area.
As to what they’ll find (or what will happen) if they reach their target is anyone’s guess. The possibilities are fascinating and a little frightening.
Lake Vostok is oxygen-rich, so it’s quite possible it will be home to creatures we’ve never seen before that have adapted to the otherwise hostile conditions.
There may also be dangers, such as the creation of a vent through the drilling that gases or water (and other things) could escape. The lake has incredible pressure upon it through the 2 miles of ice pressing down and I’ve read concerns from a couple of scientist that the borehole could be a conduit through which a giant geyser could form.
There are also concerns of contaminating what is one of the world’s last truly pristine environments with contaminants from our side of the ice.
In a world where celebrity hijinx and other similarly banal topics seem to occupy so much of our news and attention, truly important stories like that of what is about to happen at Lake Vostok are often glossed over or overlooked altogether. This is a very important event worthy of front page headlines and one I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on in the coming days.
I’m torn between being excited about the new world that will be unveiled and the niggling concern that given our track record, some parts of our planet are just better left untouched – let the mysteries remain.
Read more about Lake Vostok
Update February 8, 2012: It’s official – the Russian team have reached the surface of the lake, but now must wait for the Antarctic summer to collect and study water samples.