Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Scientists Drill Past Antarctic Ice to Reach Buried Lake. What Lies Beneath?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Scientists Drill Past Antarctic Ice to Reach Buried Lake. What Lies Beneath?

Article excerpt

Lake Vostok has been capped with Antarctic ice for at least 15 million years. Now scientists have drilled 13,000 feet to reach its surface. They'll soon learn what life forms have adapted to that cold, dark locale.

From high atop an Antarctic ice sheet, Russian scientists appear to have opened a window on the possibility for life forms beneath the icy crusts ... or on Jupiter's moon Europa or on Saturn's moon Enceladus.

This week, researchers at the bottom of the world announced they had drilled through more than 13,000 feet of ice to reach the surface of Lake Vostok - a body of water roughly the size of Lake Ontario. The lake has been capped with ice for the past 15 million to 25 million years.

With this week's development, "we're one step closer to understanding subglacial lakes, and it's a pretty big step," says Robin Bell, a senior scientist at Columbia University's Lamont- Dougherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, N.Y.

The breakthrough came toward the end of the research season in Antarctica. Scientists anticipate bringing up and analyzing the first samples from the lake next December.

For biologists, finding novel microbes in the lake's frigid water could shed more light on ways organisms adapt to extremely cold, lightless conditions - conditions also thought to exist on Europa and Enceladus.

"There is no other place on Earth that has been in isolation for more then 20 million years. It's a meeting with the unknown," said Lev Savatyugin, a researcher with Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, in an interview with the Associated Press in Moscow.

In addition, core samples pulled from the lake's bottom are expected to contain clues about broad changes in climate that turned the continent from what is thought to have been a thickly forested landscape to a barren, ice-encrusted one known for its record cold temperatures, wind speeds, and dryness.

With Lake Ontario's size, but more than three times its volume, Lake Vostock already has given researchers a better understanding of how ice sheets work, Dr. Bell says.

Studies show how the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, which flows downhill over the top of the lake, gains ice as some of the lake water freezes to the sheet's underside. …

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