ScienceScience Sunday

Science Sunday: Lake Vostok

A few weeks ago, Russian scientists, working for Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, finally broke through to Lake Vostok, a large subglacial lake in Antarctica that has been buried beneath four kilometers of ice for more than 20 million years.

What does this really mean and why is it so cool?

In short: aliens, robots, space travel, time travel, evolution, ecology, and the future of our planet.

Lake Vostok is an untouched ecosystem, a huge freshwater lake (about the area of Lake Ontario in North America) that has been entirely closed off from outside influences for millions of years. This is very much like being able to travel back in time more than 20 million years to study a living ecosystem from that time.

What we find and learn about life in this lake could expand our understanding of the early origins of life on this planet as well as evolution, particularly evolution within a closed system under conditions of high pressure and extreme cold temperatures year-round. It almost has a parallel universe feel, where we know how our evolution played out but now have the opportunity to go back and see an alternate universe version, how the same starting point could have led in different evolutionary directions and why.

Because these conditions are likely to be similar to those found under the ice crust on Mars, Jupiter’s moon Europa, and Saturn’s moon Enceladus, we will also gain more information about the possibility of life and possible forms of life on these planets and moons. Not only that, but this entire process, from drilling to discovery and beyond, gives us understanding about technology related to space exploration (e.g., drilling procedures, controlling contamination, etc.) as well as expanding our knowledge of habitable environments.

Researchers are also hoping we can learn more about our own planet and climate by studying this part of Earth that is unlike any other we have had access to until this point.

There are as many layers of scientific areas of study and possible advances as there are layers of ice, and that is nothing short of awesome.

But wait. I promised robots.

The next steps are to figure out the best way to study this lake without introducing contaminants. This has been an issue all along with the drilling, and one of the reasons it took over two decades to complete. In response to concerns about bacteria on the drill getting into the lake, the researchers ensured that once the bore was removed, pressure would send water up the boreshaft, where the water would freeze and essentially plug the hole.

Does this really mean no contamination could have gotten through before this? I don’t think we’ll know for sure until the next Antarctic summer (roughly October to February), when scientists return to continue the research. The drilling finally broke through only hours before the team had to leave the research site before the cold prevented planes from being able to fly in or out.

When they do return to collect samples, one of the methods under discussion is to use underwater robots to collect water and sediments and capture video footage. Another option discussed to ensure that no machinery even touches the water is to use suction to draw up samples that will then freeze in the shaft and be brought up for study. Pretty much the same principle behind creating the plug to seal off the lake for the winter.

So not only is Lake Vostok fascinating from the perspective of biology, ecology, glaciology, climatology, and myriad other sciences, it is also a delicate engineering puzzle, where even the tiniest miscalculation could destroy one of the greatest opportunities we’ve ever had to forward our understanding of life, the universe, and everything.

Anyone who tells you that science is boring should take a closer look at Lake Vostok, which has all the elements of some of the best of film and television. It not only brings together aliens, space and time travel, robots, and potential answers to questions about our very existence, it even has a race against time ending in a cliffhanger.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll be counting the months until I find out what happens in the next season.

Image credits: Featured image: Michael Studinger/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory/KRT/Newscom. Schematic: National Science Foundation, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory/Marc Kaufman and Alberto Cuadra/The Washington Post. Drillers: Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute Press Service/AP.

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Melanie Mallon

Melanie Mallon

Melanie is a freelance editor and writer living in a small town outside Minneapolis with her husband, two kids, dog, and two cats. When not making fun of bad charts or running the Uncensorship Project, she spends her time wrangling commas, making colon jokes, and putting out random dumpster fires. You can find her on Twitter as @MelMall, on Facebook, and on Instagram.

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