Lake Vostok: the Russians celebrate

Nature has a really great graphic (below) to show the incredible depth that the Russians drilled to get to Lake Vostok, along with a timeline of their efforts since 1990.

Russians celebrate Vostok victory : Nature

After two decades of chilly drilling and fiery debate, a Russian team has finally broken into Lake Vostok. The largest of the lakes hidden under Antarctica’s ice, and the most deeply buried, Vostok has been isolated for millions of years and may contain specially adapted microorganisms. “I’m sure they’re drinking vodka this week,” says John Priscu, an Antarctic researcher at Montana State University in Bozeman, who has been in contact with the Russian team.

[...] Although the Russian scientists have taken samples, which are most likely to be from a pocket of water just above the lake (one container was presented to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin with great fanfare), they will have to wait until December to extract any frozen lake samples, and until 2013–14 to retrieve unfrozen lake water. “This is a technological achievement. The scientific pay-off is still many years away,” says Mahlon Kennicutt, president of the international Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.

The Vostok drilling project began as an ice-coring effort to examine ancient climatic conditions. By the mid-1990s, scientists had confirmed that a giant lake lurked beneath the borehole and speculated that sampling its water might yield signs of ancient life. Continue…

And that answers my earlier question about a sample given to Putin.

Antarctica and the Russian scientists: was Vladimir Putin really given a flask of Lake Vostok water?

Wait, wait, wait… It was reported that the Russian scientists did penetrate the ancient lake on Sunday (2/5/12), but that they had to leave the same day because of incoming winter weather. We were told the bore hole would remain open with anti-freeze so that when Antarctic summer arrives, they can go back and collect samples to test.

Now we’re told some Russian bureaucrat supposedly ‘dropped in’ to Antarctica to observe the historic moment, got himself a flask of Lake Vostok water (which the Russian AARI team has been working for 20 years to reach — not to mention scientists worldwide have been eagerly waiting as long to test), and presented it to Putin in some government meeting on Friday? With that hokey, kiss-up-to-the-PM label?

Who’s lying?

Sample of hidden antarctic lake presented

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia, Feb. 10 (UPI) — A water sample from Lake Vostok, hidden under antarctic ice for millions of years, has been presented to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, scientists say.

Russian officials confirmed Wednesday researchers at the Vostok station located on the ice sheet above had drilled down to the untouched Antarctic sub-glacial lake, RIA Novosti reported.

Just hours before the historic penetration, Russia’s Natural Resource Minister Yury Trutnev arrived at the station to observe the climax of the project to drill through more than 12,000 feet into the lake.

On Friday, Trutnev arrived at a meeting with Putin and delivered a flask of water bearing a label reading “Lake Vostok, more than million years old, depth 3,769.3 meters, 5.12.11, Antarctic.”

Scientists said Lake Vostok, the largest of Antarctica’s buried network of icebound lakes, could reveal clues to how life evolved before the ice age.

The first sample from the lake’s ancient waters has not yet been tested, researchers said.

If true, I guess Putin may be the next person infected by The Thing.

Update on the Russian scientists at Lake Vostok, Antarctica

There’s finally been an official announcement from the Russian team that they did penetrate the ancient lake, just in time for them to leave.

From their website: (click image for full text):

How Lake Vostok could transform our understanding of life as we know it –

“The 57th Russian Antarctic expedition has penetrated the waters of the subglacial Lake Vostok,” Valery Lukin, head of the Russian Antarctic expedition, said in a statement.

After 20 years of stop-go drilling, the Russian team raced to chew through the final metres of ice and breached Lake Vostok in time to take the last flight out on Feb. 6 before the onset of Antarctica’s harsh winter. It was here that the coldest temperature found on Earth, minus 89.2 Celsius (minus 128.6 Fahrenheit), was recorded.

Lukin said the breakthrough came on Feb. 5, on the eve of the mission’s departure: “At a depth of 3,769 metres (12,365 ft) the drill bit made contact with the real body of water.

“The discovery of this lake is comparable to the first space flight in its technological complexity, its importance and its uniqueness,” Lukin told Interfax.

But Russia must wait for the Antarctic summer to collect and study water samples, leaving the door open for U.S. and British missions to explore two other subglacial lakes and beat it to be the first to answer the question of whether life exists under the polar ice.

[...] But the drive to explore this unspoilt environment is not without controversy.

The Russian borehole, pumped full of kerosene and freon to keep it from freezing shut, hangs like a needle over the pristine lake. “The ice core at Vostok is there and it won’t go away because it is full of anti-freeze,” said Siegert.

[...] Russia will core out the frozen sample next season.

It’s a relief to know The Thing didn’t get them. This year.


Lake Vostok, Antarctica update

A cross-section illustration of Lake Vostok.
As of five years ago, when this diagram was made, drillers had made a 2.2-mile (3.5-kilometer) shaft. (Illustration courtesy Nicolle Rager-Fuller, NSF) via: NationalGeographic

You might recall the post a couple days ago about the Russian team of scientists in the Antarctic who hadn’t been heard from in several days. RIA Novosti, a Russian news agency, published a story today that said the team had finally breached the lake, implying they’ve actually been in contact with someone. However, their source is unnamed:

After decades of drilling , Russian scientists have finally managed to pierce through Antarctica’s ice sheet to reveal the secrets of a unique sub-glacial lake, Vostok, that has been sealed there for the past 20 million years, a scientific source said on Monday. “Yesterday, our scientists stopped drilling at the depth of 3,768 meters and reached the surface of the sub-glacial lake,” the source said. — Russian Scientists Drill to Sub-Glacial Antarctic Lake | Science | RIA Novosti

Great? Not so fast say other scientists:

…Mahlon C. Kennicutt II, a professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University who leads several Antarctic research groups, said the report should be viewed with skepticism until an official announcement is made.

“I would be surprised if it was announced officially this quiet. Also, the one source [in the article] is unnamed, so it is hard to tell,” he said.

Montana State ecologist John Priscu echoed Kennicutt’s caution. “There are a lot of rumors going around about penetrating the lake, and we need the Russian program to make the official announcement,” Priscu told National Geographic News via email.

Russians “Close” to Drilling Into Antarctica’s Lake Vostok | National Geographic

And this from MSNBC: It appears there has been no official confirmation of the team’s success. There are no press releases on the website of Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, the government agency that oversees the country’s polar science expeditions

You would think the announcement would be on their own website. I wonder if the American scientists are more skeptical about the Russian team breaching the lake or their having made contact with someone?

Sidenote: also learned from that RIA Novosti story, there are rumors of a Nazi secret base there. Seriously?

With the current events happening at Lake Vostok, an old theory saying that German Nazis may have built a secret base there as early as the 1930s, has resurfaced.

It is thought that towards the end of the Second World War, the Nazis moved to the South Pole and started constructing a base at Lake Vostok. In 1943, Grand Admiral Karl Dontiz was quoted saying “Germany’s submarine fleet is proud that it created an unassailable fortress for the Fuehrer on the other end of the world,” in Antarctica.

According to German naval archives, months after Germany surrendered to the Allies in April, 1945, the German submarine U-530 arrived at the South Pole from the Port of Kiel. Crewmembers constructed an ice cave and supposedly stored several boxes of relics from the Third Reich, including Hitler’s secret files.


Meanwhile, in Antarctica

A team of Russian scientists from Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI) has been drilling into two miles of Antarctic ice for 20 years to reach a buried, ancient Antarctic lake. They were to reach the surface of that lake any day. But they’ve been out of contact with American colleagues for five days now.

GlobalPost | Fears held for Russian scientists exploring “alien” Antarctic lake, Vostok  

Russian scientists preparing to explore the “most alien lake on Earth,” Lake Vostok, have reportedly not been in touch with American colleagues in over five days.

[...] Meanwhile, Dr. John Priscu, professor of Ecology at Montana State University, told via email that he had no way to contact the team and the already cold weather was set to plunge, as Antarctica’s summer season was ending.

“Temps are dropping below [minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit] and they have only a week or so left before they have to winterize the station,” he told Fox. “I can only imagine what things must be like at Vostok Station this week.”

Daily Mail | Riddle of the Russian scientists drilling into ‘alien’ Antarctic lake buried under ice for 20 million years who have been out of radio contact for five days:

A team of Russian scientists has mysteriously lost contact with colleagues in the U.S. as they drill into a lake buried beneath the Antarctic ice for 20 million years.

The scientists had been battling conditions of minus 66C at Lake Vostok, as they raced to drill into a lake buried two miles beneath the ice before the weather closed in. The scientists hope the lake’s untouched water will reveal more about life on our planet 20 million years ago.

The lake, in the most inhospitable region of the planet, is kept liquid by geothermal heat under the ice and its conditions are often described as ‘alien’ because they are thought to be akin to the subterranean lakes on Jupiter’s moon Europa.

Base of operations: The Russians are operating out of the Vostok Station, pictured here, which opened in December 1957
Base of operations: The Russians are operating out of the Vostok Station, pictured here, which opened in December 1957

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