Lake Vostok: what lies beneath the Antarctic ice?

Feb 7, 2012

Nazi secrets microbes, or nothing? Excitement is building at Russian breakthrough

IT IS too early to say whether Russian scientists have broken through to a lake buried 4km under the Antarctic ice after more than 20 years of drilling, but that hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of the media - or their taste for wild Nazi conspiracy theories.

Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported yesterday that the team studying Lake Vostok had finally broken through. An unnamed scientist was quoted saying: "Yesterday, our scientists stopped drilling at the depth of 3,768 metres and reached the surface of the sub-glacial lake."

However, the head of Russia's Antarctic science programme told Nature today that data from the borehole was still being analysed. Valery Lukin said: "Only when I have this can I say we penetrated. We want to be sure we have really reached the surface of Lake Vostok."

Meanwhile, most of the Russian team have evacuated the research station as the Antarctic winter closes in. Only two people remain to monitor the borehole. If it sounds like the beginning of a Hollywood horror film, it isn't supposed to.

What is Lake Vostok?
Vostok is the biggest of around 370 sub-glacial lakes in Antarctica. It is thought to be up to 35 million years old - and to have been isolated for almost 15 million years.

How will Lake Vostok be explored?
When the Russians break through to the lake, they will withdraw the drill, and pressure will force the water from the lake up the borehole, where it will freeze. It is hoped that this will prevent any drilling fluid from contaminating the lake.

Later this year, during the Antarctic summer, scientists will take water samples from the lake and conduct DNA tests. Then, in the summer of 2012-13, scientists hope to send a robot probe into the lake, to collect water samples and sediments from the bottom.

What do scientists hope to find in Lake Vostok?
Any lifeforms that do exist will have evolved independently of the outside world for the past 15 million years and could be quite bizarre. Scientific American reports any organisms are likely to survive using similar mechanisms to those that have been discovered living around hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean, harvesting energy from minerals on the sea floor.

According to Nature, researchers believe the lake is virtually devoid of nutrients and organic carbon. They do not think life can have survived in conditions that are cold, dark and highly pressurised. However, it is hoped that at the very least, micro-organisms may be found in sediment or bedrock at the bottom of the lake.

The New Scientist believes that even if no life is found, it will still be a fascinating result: "If Lake Vostok turns out to be sterile, that will make it the only place on Earth where there is water but no life."

What probably will not be found at Lake Vostok is a secret 1930s Nazi U-boat base. The bizarre conspiracy theory, which holds that the Germans constructed an ice cave at Lake Vostok to store Hitler's secret files - as well as the remains of the Fuhrer and his partner Eva Braun for the purposes of cloning - has resurfaced courtesy of the RIA Novosti report.

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