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Lake Vostok – Subglacial drill projects at Antarctica


Antarctica has nearly 90% of the ice and 70% of the fresh water on Earth. The third-largest continent, it is one and a half the size of the US.  More than 150 subglacial lakes have so far been discovered beneath Antarctica’s vast ice sheet. These lakes have been isolated from the surface for considerable periods of time and each represents a unique environment. The water beneath the ice remains liquid because of small levels of heat from the Earth’s core coming up through bedrock and from the insulating effect of several kilometers of ice above. The most well-known of these is Lake Vostok in East Antarctica. A Russian team hopes to penetrate and collect samples from this lake. The British team is starting to drill Lake Ellsworth and  U.S. crew is preparing to investigate Lake Whillans  in West Antarctica. British, Russian and American science teams are all trying to become the first to sample an ancient Antarctic lake. No one has sampled any of some 400 subglacial lakes on the Antarctic continent to date.

Russian researchers said their drilling project is close to breaching a prehistoric lake trapped deep beneath Antarctica for the last 14 million years.  The conditions in Lake Vostok are thought to be similar to the conditions on Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's tiny moon Enceladus. The lakes are rich in oxygen with levels 50 times higher than in a typical freshwater lake, believed to be the result of the enormous weight and pressure of the continental ice cap. Russian engineers said if they are successful in breaching the lake, they plan to send a swimming robot into the lake in the Antarctic summer of 2012 into 2013 to collect water samples and sediments from the bottom.  In January 2011 the head of the Russian Antarctic Expedition, Valery Lukin, announced that his team had only 50 meters of ice left to drill in order to reach the water.

As of Jan. 13, 2012, they had reached a depth of 3737.5 meters, about 15 meters away from liquid water. Three teams are drilling and making progress at an average of 2 meters per day.

No signs from Russian scientists?

The team from Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI) have been drilling for weeks in an effort to reach isolated Lake Vostok. There has been no contact with the explorers for seven days (last contact was on Jan. 30, 2012) and they have now under 48 hours to make an escape from the icy depths before temperatures fall to deadly levels. After seven days of radio silence their colleagues scientists from US and Great Britain started to worry. No one knows what is happening. Antarctic scientists carry Iridium satellite phones for communication but there are spots without coverage. The scientists may have encountered a technical issue or perhaps they have simply packed up and are traveling home – keeping their discoveries to themselves. Scientists from around the globe are unsure of the fate of the mission. Cold weather is already set to plunge, as Antarctica's summer season ends and winter sets in. The scientists are currently battling conditions of up to minus 66C at Lake Vostok as they raced to drill into a lake buried two miles beneath the ice before the weather closed in. The end frame date was set to Feb 6. The team was only 12 meters from reaching the lake water surface few days before contact was lost.

Read: "Where on earth are they? Russian scientists searching for underground 'alien' lake still missing on SEVENTH day as Tuesday 'date of no return' looms", article by DailyMail.

Meanwhile in Antarctica…

The United States and the Russian Federation sent a joint team to inspect foreign stations, installations and equipment in Antarctica from January 23 to January 28, 2012. The inspection conducted pursuant to the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 and its Environmental Protocol.

Arctic Portal writes that president of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson is currently in Antarctica, with Al Gore, and a host of scientists. That's not all, the exploration also includes famous director James Cameron, as well as billionaires Richard Branson and media magnate Ted Turner. They are reportedly down there to "explore the melting ice cap in Antarctica and discuss how the nations of the world can unite in realistic action against climate change. There are few others in their company: James Hansen from NASA, Yao Tandong from China, Christiana Figueres from UNFCCC and scientists from Harvard and leading universities in Europe. Their exploration ends tommorow… That's an interesting fact.

Anyway, there is a lot of facts that you should know about Lake Vostok and future drilling events to be held in Antarctic this year. Let's start with Lake Vostok and in other two parts we will explain the stories about Lake Ellsworth and Whillans Lake.


Mysteries of Lake Vostok

Lake Vostok is located beneath Russia's Vostok Station under the surface of the central East Antarctic Ice Sheet, which is at 3,488 metres (11,444 ft) above mean sea level. The surface of this fresh water lake is approx 4,000 m (13,100 ft) under the surface of the ice, which places it at approx 500 m (1,600 ft) below sea level. Measuring 250 km (160 miles) long by 50 km (30 miles) wide at its widest point, and covering an area of 15,690 km2 (6,060 sq miles), it is similar in area to Lake Ontario, but with over three times the volume. The average depth is 344 m (1,129 ft). It has an estimated volume of 5,400 km3 (1,300 cu mi). The lake is divided into two deep basins by a ridge. The liquid water over the ridge is about 200 m (700 ft), compared to roughly 400 m (1,300 ft) deep in the northern basin and 800 m (2,600 ft) deep in the southern. Lake Vostok is actually the third largest lake in the world, measured by the amount of water it holds.

The coldest temperature ever observed on Earth (−89 °C (−128 °F)) was recorded on 21 July 1983 at Vostok station. Geothermal heat from the Earth's interior warms the bottom of the lake. The ice sheet itself insulates the lake from cold temperatures on the surface. According to surface thermal scan data the lake water ranges from 10 to 18 degree Celsius (50 to 65 degrees F). It clearly indicate a subterranean heat source. A couple of years ago Russians took core samples that have revealed the presence of microbes, nutrients and various gases – like methane – embedded in the clear, refrozen lake water. In September 1999, a total of 80 scientists from over a dozen countries met at Cambridge University’s Lucy Cavendish College to establish protocols for researching the alleged life forms teeming in what must surely be the blackest waters in the world. In a series of press releases, the assembled scientists reported that the new lake’s micro organisms would have been isolated from the rest of the world for millions of years and therefore represented a possible source of new antibiotics and enzymes.

Lake Vostok is an oligotrophic extreme environment, one that is expected to be supersaturated with nitrogen and oxygen, measuring 2.5 liters of nitrogen and oxygen per 1 kilogram (2.2 lb) of water, that is 50 times higher than those typically found in ordinary freshwater lakes on Earth. The sheer weight and pressure (350 atmospheres) of the continental ice cap on top of Lake Vostok is believed to contribute to the high gas concentration. Besides dissolving in the water, oxygen and other gases are trapped in a type of structure called a clathrate. In clathrate structures, gases are enclosed in an icy cage and look like packed snow. These structures form at the high-pressure depths of Lake Vostok and would become unstable if brought to the surface.

Recent publications analyzing the Russian ice cores have suggested the presence of heat-loving microorganisms called thermophiles, suggesting hot geothermal vents like those in the ocean may exist at the bottom of the lake. That opens the possibility of the presence of larger life, such as tubeworms and crabs, that had evolved in isolation for thousands of years.  Life in Lake Vostok would need adaption to the oxygen-rich environment, which could include high concentrations of protective enzymes. In the Antarctic summer of 2012–13, the Russian team also plans to send an underwater robot into the lake to collect water samples and sediments from the bottom. An environmental assessment of the plan will be submitted at the Antarctic Treaty's consultative meeting in May 2012.

Lost world of creatures at Antarctic deep-sea vents

"DNA signature of thermophilic bacteria from the aged accretion ice of Lake Vostok, Antarctica: implications for searching for life in extreme icy environments"

Subglacial Lake Facts

Since 1990, the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in St Petersburg in Russia has been drilling through the ice to reach the lake, but fears of contamination of the ecosystem in the lake have stopped the process multiple times, most notably in 1998 when the drills were turned off for almost eight years.

Fear of contamination?!

One major concern is the Russians have filled the hole they’re drilling with more than 14,000 gallons of kerosene and Freon to prevent it from freezing shut. The Russians have engineered their system so that when they break through into the lake, water pressure from below is supposed to push the drilling fluids up the hole, rather than letting them pour into the lake and contaminate it. The lake water is under immense pressure. In the worst case scenario, water and microorganisms could come up the hole and degas explosively, blowing out the whole borehole.

Flash animation of the lake's environment

The team is at the interface of the water and ice. That makes the ice very warm and forms large crystals that are challenging to drill through and caused the team's drill to get stuck last year. The team will switch drill bits from the large one that takes ice cores as it goes to a smaller one only a few centimetres in diameter, which will melt its way down using a sterile silicone fluid. The team will then leave the lake water to rise about 50 meters into the hole and freeze; when they return next winter, they will be able to retrieve this core and examine it for microbial life. The drilling technique employed thus far by the Russians has involved the use of freon and kerosene to lubricate the borehole and prevent it from collapsing and freezing over; 60 tons of these chemicals have been used thus far on the ice above Lake Vostok. The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition argues that this is a profoundly misguided step, which endangers not only Lake Vostok itself, but could harm other subglacial lakes in Antarctica, which some scientists are convinced are inter-linked with Lake Vostok. (Read ASOC’s letter of appeal to Russia here.)

Lake Vostok magnetic anomaly, Martian meteorite, and artificial structure mysteries

Magnetic anomaly

There is a huge magnetic anomaly on the east coast of the lake's shoreline . As the first SOAR flight crossed over to the lake's east side, the magnetometer dial swung suddenly. The readings changed almost 1,000 nanotesla from the normal 60,000 nanoteslas around Vostok. (A tesla is the standard measure of magnetism.) Typically, anomalies of 500-600 nanotesla are found in places where volcanic material has poured out of the ground. Usually magnetic anomalies are much smaller and it takes some effort to distinguish the anomaly from normal daily changes in the magnetic field but in this case numbers were to high. The size of the magnetic anomaly is about 105 km by 75 km and it indicated the geological structure changes beneath the lake. This  might be a region where the earth's crust is thinner. (wikipedia on magnetic anomalyexohuman.com on magnetic anomaly)

Research conducted by Russian scientist Ian Toskovoi—who vanished near the Vostok station in March 2000—on “geothermal upboiling” also hinted at an alternative means of purification and replenishment for the subterranean lake’s atmosphere. Toskovoi’s geothermal upboils were located in the so-called “ice dunes,” which appear to be formed by thousands of bubbles of air measuring between several feet to several hundred feet.  According to Prof. Thomas Gold, the amount of methane and exotic gases such as xenon and argon could represent a direct threat to global climate, since they would come directly from the Earth’s mantle using the geological features under Lake Vostok as “chimneys.” Aside from the danger this could represent for our planet’s embattled atmosphere, the teams of scientists and technicians in charge of drilling through the methane dome would be in the first line of danger, since such an operation would likely result in a catastrophic explosion.

LAKES BENEATH THE ICE SHEET: The Occurrence, Analysis, and Future Exploration of Lake Vostok and Other Antarctic Subglacial Lake

Martian meteorite

Researchers have uncovered a Martian meteorite in Antarctica (New Martian Meteorite Found In Antarctica), one of only about 30 known Mars space rocks on Earth. The specimen was found in December (2003) on an ice field about 466 miles (745 kilometers) from the South Pole, by a research team financed by NASA and supported by the National Science Foundation.Scientists say the mineralogy, texture and oxidized nature of the rock are unmistakably Martian. At this point, there is no suggestion that the meteorite bears evidence of fossilized life.

Mysterious structure

Beside that, something that looks like man-made structure, a tunnel, an entrance into mountain could be found at coordinates  -66.553217, 99.838294. It is possible that US, GBR or Russian military have constructed something down there but that could mean that they’re violating the international Antarctic Treaty. If not, then it might be something that’s old at least  as an ice there and that would be around 14,000 years. If it's man-made that would make it the oldest man-made structure on the planet. (worldufophotosandnews.org)

Barbara Marciniak and her Pleiadians wrote about a very ancient and evolved civilization whose remains are buried under the polar ice cap in the Antarctic. (exohuman.com)

“Antarctic Sun”, McMurdo Base publication Feb, 2001

Professor DeLaurier’s paper discussed the existence of a structure so vast that it defied imagination—a quasi-cylindrical loaf of an object measuring 65 miles (100 km) long by 65 miles thick at a staggering depth of 80 miles. The huge structure had been detected by seismic equipment located at Alert, one of the U.S.-Canadian Distant Early Warning (DEW) stations in the Arctic wilderness. Studies showed that the object, which straddled the earth’s mantle and crust, was the source of some sort of disturbance—similar to the situation encountered at Lake Vostok 30-odd years later—affecting the magnetic field at the Alert facility and “inducing a strong flow of electricity.”

Official sources have not provided much additional information regarding the mysterious Antarctic lake, and the controversy rages on across the Internet, while hundreds of different opinions clash over the nature of the goings-on at this remote location…

Lady Kadjina on Lake Vostok

Some stories and theories goes further into science fiction. In early March 2001, a U.S. channeler known as Lady Kadjina replied to a series of questions regarding the mystery of Lake Vostok. Regarding the nature of the magnetic anomaly, she declared that long before the Antarctic became icebound, the continent had been used as a landing site by extraterrestrials. The ever-benevolent aliens built what we would call an observatory, explained the channeler, equipped with a signalling device capable of broadcasting coded messages. More and more such observatories would be discovered in coming months, and Earth governments would try to seize them. Lady Kadjina added that the observatory contained vast crystals which put forth a certain kind of magnetism, which had been employed as a guidance system so that large spaceships could land at that location. And there is theories about Hollow Earth, Agharta and Shambala, secret alien underground stations etc.… Hmmmm, hard to believe all that, but we felt it's worth to mention. (more here)

FYI By the 1950's Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom claimed sovereignty over areas of Antarctica, on the basis of discovery, exploration, or geographic propinquity. Claims of Argentina, Chile, and the United Kingdom overlapped. Eight other nations – the United States, the Soviet Union, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Sweden, Japan, and South Africa – had engaged in exploration but had put forward no specific claims. The United States did not recognize the claims of other governments and reserved the right to assert claims based on exploration by its citizens. The Soviet Union took a similar position.

The Antarctic Treaty

 Featured image credit: Neil Ross/University of Edinburgh



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  1. Seems science fiction may be on the verge of once agin becoming science fact. We know so little but some claim otherwise. Hope the Russian team is found to be Ok and if not, let their sacrifice have been in the name of furthering our knowledge of the unknown. As far as what’s buried under all that ice….

  2. Interesting indeed, but a tearful end it might well be for one and all. For what ever is down there, is down there for a good reason and out of the way of human intervention. Maybe they know insider knowledge of what exactly is down there and the task of finding out is worth the risk. But when i hear about Kerosene being used and other chemicals, i suddenly become numb once again. What are we doing to this pretty planet?

  3. What is wrong with these people. Chemicals to reach a lake protected from us all this time. Do we have to screw up everything we come into contact with. May mother nature intervene and take out these stupid researchers and seal the hole. Humans are the worst parasites on the face of the planet. I hope mother nature comes along and takes out all those who would harm her anymore. This absolute madness has got to be stopped. Science gone wrong is going to kill all of us. We need to be sent back to the stone age.

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