Scientists Reach Underground Lake That Could ‘Transform the Way We Think About Life’

Russian researchers reported Wednesday that they had reached Lake Vostok, a pristine body of water untouched by light or wind for about 20 million years. They want to know what type of microbial life — bacteria too small to see — might exist there.

After more than 20 years of drilling, Russian scientists have finally opened a vertical channel to Lake Vostok, an ancient freshwater lake sealed for at least 15 million years under more than two miles of polar ice. Photo: Union Coast/Flickr

The vast depths of Lake Vostok could hold life from the distant past, or clues to the search for life on other planets. Scientists have described reaching the lake as “a meeting with the unknown”.

“In the simplest sense, it can transform the way we think about life,” Nasa’s chief scientist Waleed Abdalati said, according to The Telegraph.

Finding microbes may not sound like much. But they were the first form of Earth life eons before plants and animals existed.

The Washington Post reports that if scientists find these tiny germs in Lake Vostok, it bolsters already strong hope that elsewhere in our solar system, life also might exist where once it didn’t seem possible.

There are hopes it will allow a glimpse into microbial life forms that existed before the Ice Age, or precious evidence of what conditions must be like on the ice-crust moons of Jupiter and Saturn, or under Mars’ polar ice caps – and whether life could survive there.

The long effort has met with controversy over some of the chemicals and techniques used in the drilling.

Many have been concerned that pristine Lake Vostok — which hasn’t felt the wind for more than 20 million years and may well be home to previously unknown life forms — could be contaminated by the kerosene, Freon and other materials used in the drilling.

“There is no other place on Earth that has been in isolation for more than 20 million years,” Lev Savatyugin, a researcher with the AARI who was involved in preparing the mission, said.

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.

Valery Lukin, the head of Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI) in charge of the mission, said in a statement that about 1.5 cubic metres of kerosene and freon poured into tanks on the surface from the boreshaft, proof that the lake water streamed from beneath, froze, and blocked the hole.

When state-run Russian news agency RIA Novosti released a report Monday that said Russian scientists had drilled into the deep, dark and previously untouched Lake Vostok, a curious detail was buried farther down in the story.

Lake Vostok, about 3.8 kilometres (2.4 miles) beneath the surface, is the largest in a web of nearly 400 known subglacial lakes in Antarctica.

Researchers believe that microbial life may exist in the dark depths of the lake despite high pressure and constant cold – conditions similar to those expected to be found under ice crust on Mars, Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s move Enceladus.

Ria Novosti reported that near the end of the World War II, the Nazis moved to the South Pole and began constructing a base at Lake Vostok.

The agency quotes German Grand Admiral Karl Dontiz, who apparently said in 1943: “Germany’s submarine fleet is proud that it created an unassailable fortress for the Fuehrer on the other end of the world,” in Antarctica.

Meanwhile, Discovery News scoffs at the idea of a Nazi base there, calling it “Nazi paranoia” and “World War II conspiracy theories” from Moscow. The Moscow Times dismisses the idea as just “rumors.” Most news sites, including The Post, ignored Ria Novosti’s theory.

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