Vostok Varmints

Somewhere in Antarctica, this happened, and it was pretty.

by chelsea schuyler

Well, it’s March and I’m still cold. But I guess I shouldn’t complain, there are children in Russia much colder than me. But they really shouldn’t complain, there are Russian scientists in Antarctica MUCH colder than them. Colder than anyone actually, they built their ice core research station, Vostok, where the coldest temperature on Earth has ever been recorded, a staggering -128° F (which may or may not have been because there was a research station there to record it).

ice, even in neat shapes, is still ice

So the Russians are hanging out in their station (I refuse to say chillin), looking at ice. (It’s quite ice-like.) Using seismology, they decide to figure out how big the ice sheet that layers all of Antarctica is.

satellite image closeup

Their results suggested something unexpected, leading them to suspect there might be liquid water down there somewhere, but they couldn’t really tell how much.

Then in the 1990s specialized British altimetry satellites fly over and reveal that not only is there liquid water, but in fact a gigantic liquid lake, 160 miles long, 30 miles wide, and 2 miles deep (that’s 3 times the volume of Lake Ontario!).

And it’s right underneath the Vostok station.

Coincidence?  Yes. Actually, there are more than 300 lakes in Antarctica, so chances are if you’re there, you’re probably standing on one.  This one just happens to be the third largest body of water in the world.  The lakes are liquid even in below freezing temperatures because of the incredible pressure from the extensive layer of ice on top of them, which also serves as a blanket, trapping in possible geothermal heat from below.

Vostok drill station

Lakes in Antarctica!  Anything remotely interesting in Antarctica! Lake Vostok (in a fit of creativity they named the lake after the station) even has tides! It can rise 12mm when the sun and moon are juuust right.

So why are there lakes in the first place? Well, 65 million years ago, Antarctica was tropical. It had marsupial animals, forests, dinosaurs. But over time it migrated south, becoming more and more jaded as it drifted slowly toward the A-hole of the earth. The land froze over, and so did the top of the lakes.

Antarctic dinosaurs: Glacialisaurus, Antarctopelta, and Cryolophosaurus, respectively. Sexy female, boring male, and sassy female respectively, to aid with scale.

The big question is, could there be anything in those lakes? Not like dino-seals or anything, but it’s possible that bacteria called “extremophiles” (latin: extremus, extreme; and greek: phile, love; bacteria with serious thrill issues) could be surviving there. Having been isolated for 15 -30 million years, enduring 27° F temperatures and Oxygen levels 50 times that of normal freshwater lakes, these creatures could be completely unique to the planet.

The opposite extreme: tube worms near deep sea hydrothermal vents are also extremophiles. They live in 176°F waters and have no mouth, gut, or anus, surviving by the bacteria within them that feed off of hydrogen sulfide from the vents. Hard. Core.

If life could make it here, where else might it be thriving?

Eureka! I mean, Europa! Astrobiologists (don’t you wish you were were one of those?) hypothesize that Jupiter’s moon Europa is actually an ocean covered with a layer of ice.  The possibilities!

So what did the Russians do?  Chucked the ice cores they were studying and converted their drill to be long range. In 1998 they began the attempt to drill TWO MILES down into solid ice, just to get to the surface of the lake, using kerosine and anti-freeze to fill the borehole so it wouldn’t collapse or freeze over.

clouds not significant

Meanwhile, America and Britain wanted a piece of the action and set up stations over two other lakes using boiling water to melt the ice, a much faster but more energy-sucking method.

It’s a race against time, who will succeed first?? It’s brought Cold War to a whole new level.

Well, it only seems fair that this time the Russians would win. On the 5th of February 2012, the Russians claimed the title after 22 years. Why did it take so long? Actually, in 1998 they were only 200 meters away! But environmental concerns over contaminating the pristine lake forced them to stop for 5 years.

The other factor is weather. They only have the Antarctic “summer” (-30° F, which stands for “still pretty F’ing cold”) from December to February to work, otherwise severe blizzards prevent airplanes from being able to transport anyone out.  Oh, and the drill got stuck once for a year.

This last season the scientists were scheduled to fly out on February 6th.  The drill reached the lake literally the night before.  It was an inspiration to college students everywhere.

How did it work? Well, the drill acted sort of like a giant syringe. The point of the drill went down to within 100 ft of the surface.  Then a thermal probe melted its way down to just barely pierce the surface, then withdrew.  The resulting suction and pressure caused lake water to surge 100 ft up the borehole, then froze, creating a plug. If all went well, water only came out of the lake and nothing went in.

But because it’s so last minute, they can’t study it until next “summer,” so we won’t know about microorganisms until then.

Though no known preparations for unearthing The Thing have been made, Kurt Russell is hypothesized to be speculating.




  1. You said borehole.

    Has anyone complained about those rascly Russian pouring kerosine and anti-freeze into a pristine lake? I know that sucker erupted like mo-fo once drilled into, thus hypothetically spewing out all the spew that was spewed into it. But seriously, guys, lets stick to hot water next time and save the anti-freeze for the car-ski.

    Is someone sending a monkey down that hole next, summer…or is that just a NASA thing?


  2. Wait, why did the Russians win if their method was slower? Did we give up at some point? Has America lost confidence in its boring science?


    • Their method was slower but they still got there first. The Americans started way later, and are rumored to suffer from self doubt. We may both be studying the micro-organisms at the same time though…so we can win that ribbon if you want.


  3. wow, i am dumbstruck at how you make this so very interesting. words are kinda your thing huh? also good pictures. i have read about stuff that doesn’t interest me at all, but you make it interesting. thank you ms schuyler


  4. I feel obligated to make a joke about the scientists getting bored, that their work is boring every day, that after such advanced education they ended up boring… Anything? No? Hm.


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