Russian news outlets are reporting that a team of Russian scientists have drilled into the subglacial Lake Vostok lying below two-and-a-half miles of ice. The lake is believed to have been isolated from Earth's atmosphere and biosphere since prehistory.
The state-run Russian news agency Ria Novosti, reported Monday, “Yesterday, our scientists stopped drilling at the depth of 3,768 meters and reached the surface of the sub-glacial lake.” According to Pravda, a source at the Russian Meteorological Agency confirmed the scientists have reached the surface of the lake, but gave no further details.
Drilling in the area of Vostok Station began during the 1970s. Pravda reports that at the time drilling began in the 1970s no one suspected the existence of the lake. The station was set up only for paleoclimatic research. In 1996, however, a group of Russian and British scientists discovered the lake believed to be one of the largest fresh water reservoirs on the planet. According to CBS News, the lake is estimated to be 14 million years old.
Drilling was suspended in 1998 partly because it was feared that the kerosene-based anti-freezing agent used in the drilling could pollute the waters of the subglacial lake and destroy its microfauna.
Pravda reports Russia's 57th Antarctic mission began drilling on January 2, 2012. According to CBS, the team has been racing to finish work before the onset of Antarctica's extreme winter weather in the southern hemisphere, which prevents aircraft from operating and could lead to the team marooned over the Antarctic winter with its total darkness and extremely low temperatures. CBS reports temperatures have already plunged below minus 45 degrees Celsius and the team would likely have to leave by the end of the week at the latest.
If the team has reached the lake as reported by the Russian media, they would not be able to sample the water until next season because the drill they are using can only bring back ice and not liquid from the borehole. They would have to wait for the water to freeze over the Antarctic winter before they can bring up water from the subterranean lake and examine to see what organisms are in the lake.
RIA Novosti reports that scientists are hoping Lake Vostok would reveal a world of new and diverse life forms and show how life evolved before the Ice Age began. CBS News reports scientists believe the lake could have cold-loving microbial life adapted to life in total darkness, and could survive using mechanisms similar to those used by microbes that have recently been discovered in the total darkness of hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean, deriving energy from minerals in the seafloor.
A new world of new life forms awaiting us?
Discovery of the subterranean Antarctica lakes in the 1990s created excitement because scientists believe the ice cap above the lakes at the edges created a hydrostatic seal that has prevented the lake water from any form of contact with the outside world. This explains why organizations like NASA are watching the project with keen interest because it could offer insight into the circumstances of extraterrestrial life on planets with extremely low temperature conditions such as Mars and Jupiter's moon, Europea. The lake below the ice is expected to present a unique ecosystem that has been isolated from the Earth's atmosphere and biosphere since prehistory.
John Priscu of Montana State University, an Antarctica specialist, says it is expected that "unique organisms" will be found in the Lake. According to Mahlon C. Kennicutt II, a professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University, who leads the Antarctic research group, Lake Vostok "may contain sedimentary records of climate change that are found nowhere else on the planet."
The Washington Post reports that Priscu, who has been in contact with the Russian team, says the discovery of Lake Vostok would be monumental. Priscu, according to CBS, said "There are a lot of rumors going around about penetrating the lake, and we need the Russian program to make the official announcement. If they were successful, their efforts will transform the way we do science in Antarctica and provide us with an entirely new view of what exists under the vast Antarctic ice sheet."
Ice in Antarctica.
Lake Vostok: The Nazi connection
An odd twist to the excitement over Lake Vostok was the suggestion by Russian news agency that the Lake Vostok area was the site of a secret Nazi base built in 1943. According to Ria Novosti, the theory is that towards the end of the Second World War, the Nazis built a secret base at Lake Vostok which Admiral Karl Donitz referred to in 1943, when he said, “Germany's submarine fleet is proud that it created an unassailable fortress for the Führer on the other end of the world."
According to German naval archives, after Germany surrendered to the Allies in April 1945, German submarine U-530 arrived at the South Pole from the Port of Kiel, and constructed an ice cave in which several boxes of relics from the Third Reich, including Hitler's secret files were stored. It is also rumored that a submarine U-977 brought the remains of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun to Antarctica for DNA cloning. CBS notes, however, that this story is unconfirmed and has remained only a rumor.