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