An American team, a Russian team and a British team is each preparing to do something never undertaken before: to drill through the sometimes miles-deep snow and ice to enter and study one of the hundreds of remarkable Antarctic liquid lakes that, like the microbes, were unknown until very recently. Scientists say these lakes — mostly freshwater, some containing salts — remain permanently and surprisingly wet because of the enormous, heat-producing weight of the ice, because of the relative warmth of the bedrock and because of the vast system of streams and rivers that also flow unseen beneath the glaciers.
The efforts are part pure science and part an attempt to learn, during a time of climate change, about the workings of the continent that contains some 70 percent of the planet’s fresh water. In addition, Antarctica and its subglacial lakes are of great interest to NASA and astrobiologists worldwide searching for life beyond Earth. The discovery of life in the Antarctic ice and the prospect of similar finds in the lakes have greatly increased their hopes that parallel kinds of life may be found on Mars and Jupiter’s moon Europa, which is covered in ice but has vast oceans underneath.
The first group scheduled to break through is the Russian team at Lake Vostok, the largest body of freshwater on the continent and the fourth largest lake, in terms of volume, on the planet. The Russians began drilling their Vostok ice core in 1957 but didn’t know there was a massive lake below until 1995. They have drilled down almost three miles and are now within 300 feet of the water, and they hope to break through early next year.
One tantalizing theory says that microbes at the bottom of the lake may be descendants of organisms that lived there 25 million to 30 million years ago, before Antarctica broke off entirely from the other continents and its forested environment turned into an icy one. If true, scientists will have found extreme forms of life cut off from the sun and the planet’s surface for eons, which is precisely what they’re looking for on frigid planets and moons. “We are expecting surprises,” said Valery Lukin of the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute.
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