What Lies Beneath Lake Vostok’s Sheet of Ice?

By: | October 13th, 2013

In a major achievement hailed by scientists around the world, Russian scientists finally reached the surface of pristine Lake Vostok after more than two decades of drilling. The lake water is considered to have been sealed off under the thick ice sheet formed about 20 million years ago. The major goal of the drilling was to find any life forms or previously unknown forms of microbial life.

Lake Vostok is the largest sub-glacial freshwater lake hidden beneath thousands of vertical meters of ice in Antarctica. With an area of around 15 thousand square Kms and a depth of more than 800 meters, this lake is similar in size to Lake Ontario.

The lake’s location in the heart of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet makes it one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth. It is the place where the coldest ever temperature was observed on Earth, −89 °C (−128 °F) in the year 1983.

The idea of fresh water under Antarctica ice sheets was first proposed at the end of the 19th century. That’s when a Russian scientist theorized that the tremendous pressure exerted by the weight of the ice and geothermal heat from the Earth’s interior may warm the bottom of the lake. The ice sheet actually insulates the lake from cold temperature on the surface.

But whether the water samples taken from the lake really contain a new form of life remains to be proven. Although scientists found certain specimen, there were wide concerns that the lake might be contaminated since Russian’s borehole was filled with lubricating kerosene which already contained bacteria.

To avoid the controversy, researchers now plan to use deepwater devices to collect pure water samples and sediments from the bottom of the lake. As one of the researchers on the project put it, “much of what we found in Lake Vostok is unknown to science.”

Nidhi Goyal

Nidhi is a gold medalist Post Graduate in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences.

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