What Mysterious Life forms Live Under Antarctica’s Glaciers?
A Russian Team Reaches Huge Lake Locked Beneath the Ice for Millions of Years
by Alex Lee, age 15
In a recent article, I wrote about a UW-Madison researcher, Charles Bentley, who drilled through Antarctic ice sheets in search clues about the Earth’s ancient weather patterns. A team of Russian scientists used a similar strategy to learn which organisms inhabit this unique subglacial environment.
Valery Lukin, head of The Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, led the research project. The project involved drilling into Antarctic ice in an area about 800 miles east of the South Pole. At a depth of 12,366 feet, scientists discovered the surface of a massive freshwater lake, which they named Lake Vostok. It took them nearly two decades to reach this lake— the largest of 400 subglacial lakes in Antarctica.
The scientists hope that Lake Vostok can give them a look at the microbial bacteria that lived before the Ice Age. They hypothesize that microbial life may live in the dark depths of the lake, even with the lake’s high pressure and constant freezing temperature.
NASA’s chief scientist, Waleed Abdalati, said, “In the simplest sense, it can transform the way we think about life.” Lake Vostok’s environmental conditions are similar to those of the ice crusts on Mars; Jupiter’s moon Europa; and Saturn’s moon Enceladus.
A thick layer of ice, covering the 160-mile-long and 30-mile-wide lake, keeps it from freezing. Beneath the crust of ice, Lukin believes that the lake contains chemotrophic bacteria that are usually fed by chemical reactions in pitch darkness. They probably resemble the bacteria that lived on the ocean floor millions of years ago. Scientists think that studying this chemotrophic bacteria could provide information about the adaptations of possible extraterrestrial life.
“Conditions in subglacial lakes in Antarctica are the closest we can get to those where scientists expect to find extraterrestrial life,” Lukin said. “They followed different laws of evolution that are yet unknown to us.”
Scientists had an even more difficult time researching the lake because of its high elevation, more than 11,000 feet above sea level. They also faced temperatures as low as -128 degrees Fahrenheit at the Vostok Station, the coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth.
Sixty tons of lubricants and antifreeze were used in the drilling process. The most dangerous part of this process was preventing the pure lake from contamination.
“Lake Vostok is the crown jewel of lakes there,” said University of Colorado geological science professor James White, “These are the last frontiers on the planet we are exploring. We really ought to be very careful.”
Before studying Lake Vostok, Lukin and his team waited several years for international approval of his drilling technology. In order to prevent contamination of the lake with chemicals, he explained, “Lake water under pressure rushes up the bore hole, pushing the potentially contaminating drilling fluid up and away.”
Scientists believe that the studies from Lake Vostok will provide information about Earth’s climate and possibly its future changes.
“The clues to how Earth may respond to the continuing impact of humans, particularly fossil fuel emissions and related climate change, are housed in the records of past climate change in Antarctica,” said Mahlon Kennicutt II, Texas A&M University professor of oceanography, who leads several Antarctic science groups. “A view of the past gives us a window on our planet’s future.”
[Source: Associated Press]