What Lies Hidden Beneath the Ice?

What eldritch creatures lurk, locked for eons beneath the glacial wastes of Antarctica? No, this isn’t the beginning of a Cthulhu Mythos story. This is an actual scientific breakthrough that actually is a breakthrough. And it’s implications may be stranger than anything H.P. Lovecraft could dream up. After two decades, working under the harshest conditions on Earth, in a place where average temperatures are -400 Celsius (-400 Fahrenheit) and summer temperature only rises to a balmy -200 (-40 F), a Russian team of scientists broke through the last few meters of ice to sample water from Lake Vostok. This vast fresh-water lake has been trapped beneath more than  3.7 kilometers ( a little over 2 miles) of Antarctic ice for somewhere between 10 and 20 million years.

This is not just an isolated pool. Lake Vostok is the seventh largest fresh water lake in the world, approximately twice as big as Lake Ontario, but it wasn’t discovered until 1959. A Russian geographer, Andrey Petrovitch Kapitsa realized the lake was there after taking seismic readings of the area as part of the Soviet Antarctic Expeditions. His find was confirmed in the 1970s by British scientists taking radar surveys. It was further confirmed by remote satellite images taken in 1991. The satellites also revealed that Vostok is only the largest of what could be a network of hundreds of  sub-glacial lakes in Antarctica. The water in these lakes is kept liquid by geothermal heat rising from beneath. According to Valery Lukin, head of the Russian expedition, “The discovery of this lake is comparable to the first space flight in its technological complexity, its importance and its uniqueness.”

The Russians have been trying to drill through the ice, in order to reach the lake, on and off for 20 years. Their efforts were hampered because they can only work during the brief Antarctic summer. Additionally, the work was halted for several years to address concerns that the drilling methods used could potentially contaminate the lake. The new method they developed greatly reduced that risk, but at the cost of slower drilling. Just days ago, on February 5th, after years of hardship and delays, members of the 57th Russian Antarctic Expedition succeeded. Their drill pierced the ice immediately above the lake and allowed the scientists to extract preliminary samples of the lake’s water.

Why would anybody work under those conditions for that long, just to get a bucket of water? The answer is life itself. That’s what the scientists are looking for, living things trapped under the ice, in total darkness, and isolated from any other living thing for tens of millions of years. Until recently, scientists thought it was impossible for life to exist under such conditions. Sunlight was considered the basic requirement for any ecosystem, but with the discovery of communities of organisms living around deep sea vents in the 1970s, scientists had to reassess their assumptions. They learned it was possible for complex communities of organisms to thrive in the absence of sunlight, supported by bacteria capable of using inorganic chemicals as the energy source for life.

If life can exist on the bottom of the ocean then why not in an Antarctic lake, and if it can exist there then why not on other planets with similar conditions? In many ways the conditions in Lake Vostok are similar to those on one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa. First discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1610, Europa is covered in a thick layer of ice, and like Antarctica, may have large bodies of water trapped beneath the ice and kept liquid by geothermal heating. In the case of Europa, some of these bodies of water could be the size of oceans. Right now, however, the closest we can get to looking at possible life on Jupiter’s moon is to look for it in Antarctica’s lake. Unfortunately, that will have to wait until next October or November, when the Antarctic summer warms up enough for the work to continue. Until then, NASA’s chief scientists, Waleed Abdalati commented on the successful sampling of water from Lake Vostok, saying, “In the simplest sense, it can transform the way we think about life.”

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