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Lake Vostok: Russian scientists confirm triumph as drilling is successful in Antarctica | Daily Mail Online

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Triumph! After two decades of drilling in most inhospitable place on Earth, Russian scientists return home with barrelful  of water from ‘alien’ lake untouched for 20 million years

  • Drilling successful as scientists break through into lake buried miles under Antarctic ice
  • Scientists confirm breakthrough into buried lake
  • Have raised sample of 40 litres of water
  • Frozen sample will be removed in December in next Antarctic summer
  • 'Like exploring another planet except this one is ours', scientist
  • Lake has had no contact with man-made pollutants or Earthly life forms for millions of years

By Rob Cooper and Thomas Durante
Updated: 09:46 EDT, 9 February 2012



A similar drilling machine at Lake Vostok, which underwent a similar experiment in February this year

After more than two decades of drilling in Antarctica, Russian scientists have confirmed that they reached the surface of a gigantic freshwater lake hidden under miles of ice for some 20 million years.

The scientists returned 40 litres of water to the surface - water isolated from earthly life forms since before Man existed.

The scientists will later remove the frozen sample for analysis in December when the next Antarctic summer comes. They have now left the site.

The scientists rebuffed claims that their drilling could have contaminated the lake, a body of water which has been in isolation for 20 million years.

The Russian researchers have insisted the bore would only slightly touch the lake's surface and that a surge in pressure will send the water rushing up the shaft where it will freeze, immediately sealing out the toxic chemicals.

Lukin said about 50 cubic feet of kerosene and freon poured up to the surface from the boreshaft, proof that the lake water streamed up from beneath, froze, and blocked the hole.

'It's like exploring another planet, except this one is ours,' said Columbia University glaciologist Robin Bell

Valery Lukin, the head of Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI), which is in charge of the mission, said in Wednesday's statement that his team reached the lake's surface on Sunday.

Lukin has previously compared the Lake Vostok effort to the moon race that the Soviet Union lost to the United States, telling the Russian media he was proud that Russia will be the first this time. Although far from being the world's deepest lake, the severe weather of Antarctica and the location's remoteness made the project challenging.

'There is no other place on Earth that has been in isolation for more than 20 million years,' said Lev Savatyugin, a researcher with the AARI. 'It's a meeting with the unknown.'


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Savatyugin said scientists hope to find primeval bacteria that could expand the human knowledge of the origins of life.

'We need to see what we have here before we send missions to ice-crusted moons, like Jupiter's moon Europa,' he said.

Lake Vostok is 160 miles  long and 30 miles across at its widest point, similar in area to Lake Ontario. It lies about 2.4 miles beneath the surface and is the largest in a web of nearly 400 known subglacial lakes in Antarctica. The lake is warmed underneath by geothermal energy.

Sample: An ice core is seen at the Vostok camp in Antarctica on April 5, 2010

The scientists broke through into the underground lake at 3,768 metres - but a Russian News Agency claims that there may be further surprises from the mission

The drilling in the area began in 1989 and dragged on slowly due to funding shortages, equipment breakdowns, environmental concerns and severe cold.

While temperatures on the Vostok Station on the surface above have registered the coldest ever recorded on Earth, reaching minus 89 degrees Celsius (minus 128 degrees Fahrenheit), the water in the lake is warmed by the giant pressure of the ice crust and geothermal energy underneath.

The Russian team reached the lake just before they had to leave at the end of the Antarctic summer season.

Scientists believe that microbial life may exist in the dark depths of the lake despite its high pressure and constant cold - conditions similar to those expected to be found under the ice crust on Mars, Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's move Enceladus.

Hole lotta fun: Researchers work with drilling apparatus at the Vostok camp

Researchers enjoy a traditional Vostok welcome of vodka and bread after their success

'In the simplest sense, it can transform the way we think about life,' NASA's chief scientist Waleed Abdalati told the AP by email.

Scientists in other nations hope to follow up this discovery with similar projects. American and British teams are drilling to reach their own subglacial Antarctic lakes, but Bell said those lakes are smaller and younger than Vostok, which is the big scientific prize.

Some scientists hope that studies of Lake Vostok and other subglacial lakes will advance knowledge of Earth's own climate and help predict its changes.

Cold call: A supply convoy arrives at the Vostok research camp in December 2009

Base of operations: The Russians are operating out of the Vostok Station, pictured here, which opened in December 1957

Cross country vehicles deliver food and fuel to the Vostok Antarctic research station, one of the coldest and most inhospitable places on Earth. It has recorded temperatures of -89 centigrade

"It is an important milestone that has been completed and a major achievement for the Russians because they've been working on this for years," Professor Martin Siegert, a leading scientist with the British Antarctic Survey, which is trying to reach another Antarctic subglacial lake, Lake Ellsworth.

"The Russian team share our mission to understand subglacial lake environments and we look forward to developing collaborations with their scientists and also those from the U.S. and other nations, as we all embark on a quest to comprehend these pristine, extreme environments," he said in an email.

In the future, Russian researchers plan to explore the lake using an underwater robot equipped with video cameras that would collect water samples and sediments from the bottom of the lake, a project still awaiting the approval of the Antarctic Treaty organization.

The prospect of lakes hidden under Antarctic ice was first put forward by Russian scientist and anarchist revolutionary, Prince Pyotr Kropotkin at the end of the 19th century. Russian geographer Andrei Kapitsa pointed at the likely location of the lake and named it following Soviet Antarctic missions in the 1950s and 1960s, but it wasn't until 1994 that its existence was proven by Russian and British scientists.

Earlier this week state-run news agency in Russia claimed that an extraordinary cache of Hitler's archives may be buried in a secret Nazi ice bunker near the spot where yesterday's breakthrough was made.

‘It is thought that towards the end of the Second World War, the Nazis moved to the South Pole and started constructing a base at Lake Vostok,’ claimed RIA Novosti, the Russian state news agency.

It cited Admiral Karl Dontiz in 1943 saying ‘Germany's submarine fleet is proud that it created an unassailable fortress for the Fuehrer on the other end of the world’, in Antarctica.

According to German naval archives, months after the Nazis surrendered to the Allies in April 1945, a U-530 submarine arrived at the South Pole from the Port of Kiel.

The crew are rumoured to have constructed a still undiscovered ice cave ‘and supposedly stored several boxes of relics from the Third Reich, including Hitler's secret files’.

A later claim was that a U-977 submarine delivered remains of Hitler and Eva Braun to Antarctica in the hope they could be cloned from their DNA. The submariners then went to Argentina to surrender, it was claimed.


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Microbiologists say that the lake could offer a glimpse of unique life forms. The project has been closely watched by both NASA and the Russian Space Agency.

One hope is that it will give a glimpse of conditions on Jupiter's moon Europa where water is also believed to exist under a thick ice cover.

‘The discovery of microorganisms in Lake Vostok may mean that, perhaps, the first meeting with extraterrestrial life could happen on Europa,’ said Dr Vladimir Kotlyakov, Director of the Geography Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Specialists at the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute will now test a sample of water that has been sucked from the lake, and frozen.

Karl Doenitz German admiral, and commander of the submarine fleet 1939-1943: A Russian news agency has claimed that he built 'an unassailable fortress for the Fuhrer' near Lake Vostok

Experts say the lake, which could have a body of water the same size as Lake Ontario, could offer a glimpse of unseen lifeforms

Last year, the expedition stopped 10 to 50 metres short of the lake after the weather closed in and the scientists were forced to abandon the expedition.

Academics say they have found ‘the only giant super-clean water system on the planet’. They forecast the extraordinary 5,400 cubic kilometres of pristine water will be ‘twice cleaner than double-distilled water’, and any life will have developed in total isolation.

‘We're not talking a new Loch Ness Monster - though we actually cannot really predict what to expect,' an expedition source told Ria Novosti. ‘The lake water is a moving body, and despite being almost 4 km under the ice, there is an oxygen supply, and microorganisms have already been found in the ice drilled from close to the roof of Lake Vostok.’

Professor John Priscu told in an email that the crews had been working ‘round the clock’ to finish the project before the Antarctic summer ended, which meant no planes could fly from the remote Vostok Station, where temperatures are currently around minus 66C.

'If they were successful, their efforts will transform the way we do science in Antarctica and provide us with an entirely new view of what exists under the vast Antarctic ice sheet,' he said.

Geothermal heat under the ice keeps the lake liquid, and its conditions are often described as 'alien' because they are thought to be akin to the subterranean lakes on Jupiter's moon Europa. 

'I think we'll find unique organisms,' Professor Priscu, a microbiologist at the University of Montana, and a veteran Antarctic researcher who is on the trip told Scientific American.

On January 13, Mr Priscu said the team was progressing well, drilling 5.7ft a day. He said they had switched from an ice drill to a thermal drill to melt through the last 16 to 32ft of ice.

'This was the plan, but when you're in the field, things can change,' Priscu, who had been communicating with the group from his office in St. Petersburg, said.

'This has never been done before,' Priscu told OurAmazingPlanet. 'It's a one-of-a-kind drill, a one-of-a-kind borehole, and a one-of-a-kind lake, so I'm sure they're making decisions on the fly all the time.'

The team had a deadline of Tuesday, before already ice-cold temperatures in the desolate spot drop another 40 degrees centigrade.

Valery Lukin, chief of the Russian Antactic Expedition, said last month: 'We do not know what is waiting for us down there.'

Cold hard facts: Drilling milestones reached and marked on the wall are seen at the Vostok camp in Antarctica in June 2010

Harsh conditions: The Russian team have also worked with French and American scientists on the project at Vostok Station

Antarctica, McMurdo Station, boxes of ice cores from Lake Vostok beneath the polar plateau

Left: A cross-section of drilling projects at the lake, showing the dates of ice reached. Right: A diagram from the project showing the depth of the water in the subglacial lake

Treacherous island: The red circle shows the location of Vostok Station, the remote polar station where the scientists drilled to the buried lake

Drill: Lake Vostok, seen in this satellite image, is one of the most inhospitable environments on earth. During drilling at the site temperatures have hit -66C

On July 21, 1983, temperatures at Vostok Station hit the lowest level ever recorded on Earth - minus 89.2C.

When the breakthrough moment comes they must take care not to contaminate the hidden underground world with bacteria and fluids from the drilling.

To make sure the water stays completely pure, the machinery will not even touch the lake.

Instead suction will be used to suck samples of the unique water into the borehole, where it will freeze before being raised to the surface for analysis.

Vostok Station, 1967: A supply plane delivers foodstuffs and equipment to Vostok polar station

The team also faces the risk of an explosion with oxygen and nitrogen trapped below.

They are trying to make sure only a small amount of air can escape to avert the risk.

The scientists have been drilling 24 hours a day in three shifts as they race to break through before winter descends.

Environmental groups have criticised the work on the site - and the chemicals used such as kerosene to keep the hole open.

Others have said the site should not be explored but instead left in pristine condition.


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Lake Vostok: Russian scientists confirm triumph as drilling is successful in Antarctica

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