Is Lake Vostok the last secret on earth?
Beneath 4km of Antarctic ice is the dark water of Lake Vostok, sealed from the world for 15 million years. What lies hidden in its depths?
'It's like working on an alien planet where no one has been before,' says Valery Lukin, a Russian scientist involved in the project.
But with only about 50m left to drill, time is running out for the team hoping to reach Lake Vostok, the world's strangest lake.
The long Antarctic winter is approaching, when temperatures will plummet to -80C. Scientists must leave the base on February 6th, while conditions are still mild enough to land a plane. But what awaits them beneath the ice?
Lake Vostok is an ancient sub-glacial lake, half the size of Wales and 500m deep. Comparable in size to Lake Ontario in Canada, it has remained sealed from the world for the last 15 million years.
Fifty years ago, no one believed that water could remain liquid in the freezing conditions of Antarctica's ice sheet. It seemed to defy the laws of physics.
But conventional wisdom was turned on its head by satellite pictures revealing a mass of water beneath the ice. How has this occurred?
Some believe that the ice acted as an insulating blanket, preventing the earth's heat from escaping. Did the trapped heat then melt the bottom of the ice sheet causing a sub-glacial lake to form?
More recently, geologists have suggested another scenario.
Is Lake Vostok a rift lake, formed around 30 million years ago during a more temperate era?
If true, then the lake was covered over by ice 15 million years ago when the world got colder, sealing in early life forms. And it's possible the microbes there are similar to ones found on other planets.
NASA's Chris Mackay says: 'How the bacteria get energy to survive is an important question,' since the lake could be comparable to the subsurface of Mars where conditions are similar.
Lost and found
There is a problem at the heart of this venture. The very thing that makes the lake potentially unique - its millenia of isolation from the rest of the world - cannot be explored without invasion by the outer world.
'There will be life there - anywhere we go on the planet where there's an extreme environment, we always find life,' said Dr Andy Smith, a glaciologist at the British Antarctic Survey. 'But we have to make a huge effort not to spoil the environment by being interested in it.'
Other scientists believe it's worth it, hoping for a 'eureka' moment which might explain how life began on earth, and could even hold a key to finding life on other planets.
One thing is certain: the lost world of Lake Vostok is about to be found.
- What do we most want science to tell us?
- Can you be an environmentalist and a scientist?
- Design a poster for those arriving in Antarctica. What do you want to tell them?
- Write a report for a scientific journal on the significance of Lake Vostok.
Some People Say...
“Why don't we just leave the natural world alone?”
What do you think?
Q & A
- So this is the world's coldest place?
- Yes. The lowest temperature ever recorded on earth was there on July 21st, 1983. It was -89C. Chilly.
- And when did the scientists arrive?
- In 1957, though in those days science took second place to survival. The team lived on chunks of butter - the only thing that kept them warm.
- So what might be found in the lake?
- With the coming of the ice, the plants would have disappeared first with no light for photosynthesis; then the animals that fed on them. Remaining now will be the microbial population that was able to adapt.A In the early days, no one. The first scientist to suspect it was the Russian, Andrey Kapitza. 'Most thought the idea ludicrous,' he said. 'New ideas are never believed at the beginning.'