Earth’s Real Lost World — and its Imminent Entry

by Jennifer Frazer on January 13, 2011

The warren of lakes beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet. Zina Deretsky/NSF

Far more exciting to me than the (in my opinion) remote possibility of life on other worlds in our solar system is the near-guarantee of the discovery of unique life that could happen within weeks right here on Earth. For hidden beneath the thick layer-caked ice sheet of Antarctica is a lacy web of lakes that have been sealed in for perhaps 15 million years. And soon — perhaps this month — Russian scientists will breach the last veil of ice blocking our view of the biggest: Lake Vostok. The titanic lake — roughly the size of Lake Ontario and with a maximum depth double that of Lake Superior (2600 ft. vs. 1300 ft) and discovered only in the 1970s — lies under two and a half miles of ice.

Since there is virtually nowhere on Earth that life doesn’t thrive, I fully expect scientists will find it there. And it may be life that is unlike any other we have seen. We’re not just talking weird bacteria (although that would be AWESOME). There could be blind, bizarre fish, or other large organisms beyond our wildest imagination (although, it must be said, we have no evidence (so far) of a large energy source for the lake, so microbes might be it). Use your imagination — until they break through, you can imagine anything you want down there — trilobites, krakens (per one New Scientist reader), Nessie. THIS is incredibly exciting news.

There are several reasons to think the life in Antarctica’s Lake Vostok (Russian for “East”) might be seriously unusual and wonderful. First, it hasn’t been touched by humans. There was very little you could say that for even before the Age of Discovery — humans had touched nearly every terrestrial corner of the planet. You could make a good argument for many cave ecosystems where humans did not tread until this century. And they have unique life aplenty, but they also have water, life, and even pollution that percolate in from the surface on a regular basis, even where no (wo)man has set a foot. Not these lakes. To the best of our knowledge, they have been sealed to the outside since the ice sheets formed.

Second, the water of Lake Vostok is unlike water in virtually any other spot on Earth. It’s under enormous pressure thanks to jillions of tons of ice, and as a result, is super-oxygenated. We’re talking oxygen concentrations 50 times that of your backyard pond. And it must be said that oxygen is not the nicest of molecules from life’s perspective. Although properly harnessed, it’s a great power source, it’s also a bit like rocket fuel: volatile and reactive. Oxygen breakdown products called free radicals are like molecular loose cannons: capable of wreaking¬† havoc on DNA and other important cell bits. Accepting oxygen into your life (some bacteria — obligate anaerobes — refuse to do so and will die if they come into contact with the stuff) comes with a lot of extra wear and tear on the ol’ cell. So dealing with oxygen concentrations this high must involve some incredible cellular defense weaponry.

In addition, some of the embarassment of oxygen is believed to be tied up in clathrates — slushy mixtures of water and gas at the bottom of the lake. As you may imagine, popping the top on this baby could involve a reaction not unlike opening a 2-liter that has had a fun night with a paint mixer. More on that later.

Finally, although it is little-known today (I once had a senior scientist who shall remain nameless accuse me of making this up), Earth’s poles have on many occasions in its past — some quite recent — been lush and green. They were sub-tropical forests that somehow — I have no idea how — managed to survive three to six months of darkness each year. What subtropical forests and animals did under such circumstances is fascinating to think about. But we have abundant evidence of this — like petrified wood and tree mummies found on Axel Heiberg Island or more recently on Ellesmere Island in Canada (global warming is outing them). And here’s the thing: Lake Vostok was a lake before Antarctica was covered in ice. It was a lake during Antarctica’s Life o’ Riley. And its depths could well preserve evidence of that life, protected from the inexorable grinding crush of the overlying ice. WOW.

So there are many reasons to be excited about the exploration of Lake Vostok, provided we don’t somehow accidentally and catastrophically pollute or kill everything off by contaminating it with stuff from the surface. That, as always, is the trick. And it’s something scientists have been thinking about. How do you penetrate and explore such a place without destroying the very thing you came to study?

Good question.

Artist's conception of the drilling of Lake Vostok. For a more accurate view, visit the New Scientist article linked at the beginning of this post. Nicolle Rager-Fuller/NSF

The Russians have been working on this problem for well over a decade. Previous attempts to penetrate the lake were put on hold until Antarctica’s governing body could be satisfied they had a good plan in place to protect it. So the Russians halted with about 100 meters to go. As the wikipedia article mildly puts it:

This was to prevent contamination of the lake from the 60 ton column of freon and aviation fuel Russian scientists filled it with to prevent it from freezing over.

I gotta hand it to the Russians — no half measures for them*. Still, as may be imagined, a 60-ton column of freon and aviation fuel might not be the best way to introduce ourselves to the Lake Vostok locals. So they have a plan for this too.

According to New Scientist:

“Beginning late December, we will first use a mechanical drill and the usual kerosene-freon to reach 3725 metres. Then, a newly developed thermal drill head, using a clean silicon-oil fluid and equipped with a camera, will go through the last 20 to 30 metres of ice.”

Then, if all goes as planned, the lake will burst from its icy prison, freezing shortly into its trip up the borehole, plugging it. In theory, the borehole’s negative pressure should prevent any contamination from our end reaching their end. And then, sometime next year after the plug is good and frozen, we’ll bore into the newly frozen lake water. Our sample will be complete and the lake contamination free — we hope. Anyone who’s picked up a sci-fi novel (or a newspaper, for that matter) knows these things can go horribly wrong (for instance — let’s hope that ice-water boundary is not 20 to 30 meters higher than they think it is) — but to never look in the lake seems a mistake too. So bottom’s up, boys.

________________________________________________________

*especially considering my solution to this problem would essentially be something like: get iron with really long cord. Set to “Linen”. Place on ice. Wait.

{ 2 trackbacks }

This Week in Formerly Terrifying Prehistoric Marine Life: Giant Sea Scorpions
January 31, 2011 at 11:56 pm
Lake Vostok: Out of Reach for Another Year?
February 6, 2011 at 9:23 am

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Daniel January 13, 2011 at 8:56 pm

This is easily one of your best posts.

kati January 14, 2011 at 9:43 pm

i can NOT wait to hear what they find!!!

Jo January 16, 2011 at 7:29 pm

Wow, I can’t wait to hear either! Thanks for the heads up! Amazing stuff…

Jennifer Frazer January 18, 2011 at 5:06 pm

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