Drill, Baby, Drill: Russian Scientists Reach a Massive Underground Lake

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A satellite picture of the continent of Antarctica. Russian scientists drilled to the subglacial Lake Vostok, ore than 2 miles beneath the surface.

If life were a Michael Bay movie, the moment this week when Russian scientists finally drilled into the subglacial Lake Vostok in Antarctica would immediately be followed by the sudden and frightening appearance of unfrozen aliens, or the Predator, or the Decepticons, or giant prehistoric piranhas, and only Shia LaBeouf—plus leggy starlet to be named later—could save the human race from extinction.

Fortunately, gratefully, life is not a Michael Bay movie—most of the time—and the Russian expedition to reach Lake Vostok simply represents an impressive scientific achievement done under unimaginably difficult conditions. The scientists who drilled to the surface of Lake Vostok—hidden under miles of ice—managed a feat that is increasingly rare today: excavating a part of the planet that has never been seen or touched by human beings. “There is no other place on Earth that has been in isolation for more than 20 million years,” said Lev Savatyugin, a researcher with Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI), which led the expedition. “It’s a meeting with the unknown.”

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David Herszenhorn and James Gorman in the New York Times explained the details behind the drill:

A statement by the chief of the Vostok Research Station, A.M. Yelagin, released by the director of the Russian Antarctic Expedition, Valery Lukin, said the drill made contact with the lake water at a depth of 12, 366 feet. As planned, lake water under pressure rushed up the bore hole 100-130 feet pushing drilling fluid up and away from the pristine water, Mr. Yelagin said, and forming a frozen plug that will prevent contamination. Next Antarctic season the scientists will return to take samples of the water.

The first hint of contact with the lake was on Saturday, but it wasn’t until Sunday that pressure sensors showed that the drill had fully entered the lake. Lake Vostok, named after the Russian research station above it, is the largest of more than 280 lakes deep under the miles thick ice that covers most of the Antarctic continent, and the first one to have a drill bit break through to liquid water from the ice that has kept it sealed off from light and air for somewhere between 15 and 34 million years.

Why have Russian scientists spent nearly a decade trying to drill through more than 2 miles of solid ice in some of the most inhospitable territory in the world? (The coldest documented temperature on Earth was recorded at Vostok—the Russian Antarctic station—in July 1983: a chilly -128.6 F.) The hope is that some form of new microbial life might exist within the waters of the lake, which remain liquid despite the cold thanks to heat generated by the pressure of all that ice and geothermal energy rising from the planet’s core. The environment of Lake Vostok is similar to that found on Jupiter’s icy moon of Europa. If life can survive in Lake Vostok, it might just be able to survive on another planetary body, as Columbia University glaciologist Robin Bell told the Associated Press: “It’s like exploring another planet, except this one is ours.”

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With an area of 3,800 sq. mi (10,000 sq. km) and depths reaching 2,600 ft (800 m), Lake Vostok is around the same size as the massive Lake Baikal in Siberia or Lake Ontario in North America. It’s still going to take the Russian scientists some time to actually take samples from the lake—with the Antarctic winter on its way, they’ll need to leave Vostok Station soon. And  there are environmental concerns that the drilling process could contaminate the lake, which is pristine. The researchers used more than 66 tons (60 metric tons) of lubricants and antifreeze in the drilling process—chemicals that would have polluted Lake Vostok had they leaked through the ice, and contaminated any samples. The good news is that contamination seems to have been avoided: the scientists plugged the bottom of the bore hole with Freon, an inert fluid, and drilled the final distance to the lake surface using a heated drill tip instead of a motorized drill that needed chemical lubricants. When the lake was breached, water flowed up the bore hole before freezing and forming an icy plug.

It will take some time before we know just what the Lake Vostok expedition has been able to discover about life on Earth—and perhaps, life beyond the stars as well. But for Valery Lukin of Russia’s AARI, who oversaw the expedition, it’s simply time to celebrate an amazing scientific accomplishment:

This fills my soul with joy.

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