Drilling Reaches Lake Vostok, Long Trapped Under Antarctic Ice Sheet
In the coldest spot on the earth’s coldest continent, Russian scientists have reached a freshwater lake the size of Lake Ontario after spending a decade drilling through more than two miles of solid ice, the scientists said on Wednesday.
A statement by the chief of the Vostok Research Station, A.M. Yelagin, released by the director of the Russian Antarctic Expedition, Valery Lukin, said the drill made contact with the lake water at a depth of 12, 366 feet. As planned, lake water under pressure rushed up the bore hole 100-130 feet pushing drilling fluid up and away from the pristine water, Mr. Yelagin said, and forming a frozen plug that will prevent contamination. Next Antarctic season the scientists will return to take samples of the water.
The first hint of contact with the lake was on Saturday, but it wasn’t until Sunday that pressure sensors showed that the drill had fully entered the lake. Lake Vostok, named after the Russian research station above it, is the largest of more than 280 lakes deep under the miles thick ice that covers most of the Antarctic continent, and the first one to have a drill bit break through to liquid water from the ice that has kept it sealed off from light and air for somewhere between 15 and 34 million years.
There have been much-disputed hints that life might still exist there. If so, that would give a great boost to hopes of finding life in similar conditions in icy water on one of the moons of Jupiter.
Dr. Lukin said it was a momentous, pioneering moment. “For me, the discovery of this lake is comparable with the first flight into space,” he told the Interfax News Agency. “By technological complexity, by importance, by uniqueness. After reaching the water, the research team gathered by the drilling site for a photo.
John Priscu, a geologist specializing in Antarctica at Montana State University, who has kept in contact with scientists in Antarctica and in Russia as the drilling has progressed, said that the anticipation had grown in the past two weeks as the drilling team finally came close to the lake surface just as the Antarctic summer was ending and the weather worsening.