After spending more than two decades drilling in the coldest place on Earth, Russian scientists have finally broken ice on Lake Vostok, a freshwater lake believed to contain water sealed frozen for more than 15 million years.
The first indication of contact with the lake was on Saturday, but it was not until Sunday that the pressure sensors on the drill signaled it had fully penetrated the lake. Being 2.4 miles beneath the surface and 160 miles long, Lake Vostok is the largest of more than 280 known lakes in Antarctica. Lake Vostok is roughly the size of Lake Ontario.
Director of the Antarctic Research Institute (AARI) and mission leader, Valery Lukin, explained that the discovery was monumental for science. “I think it’s fair to compare this project to flying to the moon,” he told The Associated Press.
Reaching Lake Vostok was a major discovery eagerly awaited by scientists worldwide, as many hope the discovery will yield glimpses into microscopic life forms that existed during the Ice Age. Scientists are also optimistic that material within the lake will provide valuable clues potentially leading to foreign life forms on the distant icy water moons of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars.
Lev Savatyugin, a researcher with the AARI, said, “There is no other place on Earth that has been in isolation for more than 20 million years. It’s a meeting with the unknown.”
Scientists anticipate that the human knowledge of the origins of life will surely expand once further exploration is conducted.
Although the project has yielded a major scientific breakthrough, it has raised concerns that more than 66 tons of lubricants and antifreeze used in assisting the drilling could have contaminated the lake.
According to the Washington Post, “The Russian researchers have insisted that the bore would only slightly touch the lake’s surface and a surge in pressure will send the water rushing up the shaft where it will freeze, immediately sealing out the toxic chemicals.”
The drilling project was racing against the clock, as scientists hoped to reach the lake before the Antarctic summer when flights and weather conditions would make the exploration impossible. Temperatures have already dropped below -45 degrees Fahrenheit. At -50 degrees, the difficulties for aircraft increase significantly.
Russian scientists and biologists plan to explore the lake using an underwater robot fully equipped with video cameras that would accumulate water samples and deposits from the bottom of the lake, a future project still awaiting the approval of the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat.
The lake has been an ideal place for excavation due to its proximity to Earth’s core. The heated energy from within the Earth’s crust keeps the lake in liquid form, preserving any untouched bacteria and organisms.
Located 800 miles from the South Pole in the middle of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, Vostok is the one of the most isolated research stations in Antarctica. It currently holds the record for the coldest place on Earth where the temperature was recorded in July 1983 as 128.6 degrees below Fahrenheit.