Antarctic lake race sees scientists dash for life's secrets in subglacial world
One hundred years after Robert Falcon Scott raced Roald Amundsen to be the first to reach the south pole, scientists are engaged in another dash at the bottom of the world, this time to reach lakes that have been isolated from the rest of the world for thousands and millions of years.
Russian scientists have confirmed they have drilled through more than 2.3 miles of ice to reach Lake Vostok, a 16,000 sq km (6,200 sq mile) body of water that has been isolated from the rest of the world for almost 15m years.
Vostok is the largest of hundreds of lakes that sit under the thick layer of ice on the Antarctic continent and Russian scientists have been drilling through the ice towards the lake for several decades.
They think the lake might be a haven for so-called "extremophiles" – bacteria and other single-celled organisms that have evolved to live in conditions in which other life forms would struggle to survive, such as darkness, or extreme temperatures, or salinity.
Examining any life forms found in the Vostok – most likely to be very simple organisms if they exist – would shed light on the evolution of life on Earth and, possibly, tell scientists about the potential for life elsewhere in our solar system.
After battling temperatures as low as -50C (-58F), the Russian team will now pack up their project, shut down their equipment and head home. Soon, the weather will become too harsh to work there or fly people in or out as winter takes hold. They will return in the weeks around next Christmas when summer returns to collect water and ice samples from Vostok.
They are not the only people looking for answers in hostile places, however. In November this year, scientists from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) will use a hot water "drill" to cut through the two-mile-thick icecap to Lake Ellsworth – seven miles long, two miles wide and 150 metres deep – on the western Antarctic icesheet. The Americans plan to use a hot water jet to penetrate 800 metres of ice early next year to reach the two-mile long Lake Whillans.
"The big question about subglacial lakes research is, is there life there?" said Martin Siegert of the University of Edinburgh, one of the principal investigators on the BAS expedition. "If so, what is it and how does it live? Is it thriving, is it on the edge of existence? Or is there no life in these environments? What can the sediments on the lake floor tell us about past changes in Antarctica and the world?"
Even if the scientists find nothing, they will have taken a significant step in defining the limits at which life can no longer exist on Earth – with implications for a better understanding of potential life in the rest of our solar system. Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, has an icy crust with a liquid ocean underneath and some astrobiologists think life might be able to survive there.
"If life is teeming in Lake Ellsworth, then we know it's a very good habitat and it might change our appreciation of other places, Europa included," said Siegert.
Unlike the Russian project, which took several seasons to drill through the ice using equipment normally used to make ice cores, the US and British missions will take just a few days to get to their lakes.
The Russians' mechanical drills are heavy and cumbersome to operate in the cold, while the jets of hot water quickly melt clean channels through the ice.
The Americans and British will also be able to take a wider range of samples, including sediments from the lake beds, whereas the Russians will only have access to the surface water of Vostok.
"A lot of people ask if this is a race," said Siegert. "Scientifically, it might be because all of science is a race … everyone wants to do research first, that's what drives researchers.
"But I'm not interested in just getting into the lake – I don't think the Russian scientists are either. That achieves nothing other than a necessary stepping stone to get into measurements of the system – that's really what drives us." Indeed, scientists saw this year's expeditions as practice runs for a more ambitious joint project in the future. An international team, said Siegert, would come together to plan a more purposeful exploration of Vostok, using the practical knowledge gained from the current projects.
John Priscu, of Montana State University and leader of the US expedition to Whillans, has studied lakes in Antarctica for more than 30 years. He thinks Vostok is the ultimate challenge for scientists – the "jewel" under the ice – since it is the biggest and most isolated of all the subglacial lakes in the Antarctic continent. "It's a huge lake and it must have very interesting secrets that will tell us how ecosystems work in that kind of environment.
"All three of these programmes are testing the waters. Once we do it this year and we know we can bring samples back, and have ensured that we're not contaminating the environment or our samples, we can all come back." He would like to see an international committee.
Still, the three expeditions this year will not only test the drilling practicalities but will, together, achieve something else very important. Once they are all complete, said Priscu, the world will change the way it views Antarctica. "Instead of being a big block of ice, we're going to look at it as part of the living ecosystem on Earth, which has never really been the view," he said.
"The surface of Antarctica is pretty harsh. We see very little to no life at the surface – it's too dry, too cold.
"Once you get down to the bottom, it's warmer, there's liquid water, it's a much more clement environment down there. You just have to have a special set of organisms to know how to use it. That's what we hope to figure out."