May 31, 2002
Antarctica is home to more than 70 lakes that lie thousands of meters under the surface of the continental ice sheet, including one under the South Pole itself. Lake Vostok, beneath Russia's Vostok Station, is one of the largest of these subglacial lakes, comparable in size and depth to Lake Ontario, one of the North American Great Lakes. There is some evidence that Vostok's waters may contain microbial life. Exploration of the lake to confirm that life exists will be an international effort and will require the development of ultra-clean technologies to prevent contaminating the waters.
The National Science Foundation, as manager of the U.S. Antarctic Program, coordinates nearly all U.S. research in Antarctica and would lead U.S. participation in any international effort to explore the lake. NSF's Office of Polar Programs has established a steering committee to study the possible scientific exploration of Antarctic subglacial lakes. See: http://www.nsf.gov/od/opp/antarct/subglclk.jsp
Vostok Station is located in one of the world's most inaccessible places, near the South Geomagnetic Pole, at the center of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. The station is 3.5 kilometers (11,484 feet) above sea level. The coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth, -89.2 degree Celsius (-128.6 degrees Fahrenheit), was measured at Vostok Station on July 21, 1983.
Lake Vostok's physical characteristics have led scientists to argue that it might serve as an earthbound analog for Europa, a moon of Jupiter. Confirming that life can survive in Lake Vostok might strengthen the argument for the presence of life on Europa.
Russian and British scientists confirmed the lake's existence in 1996 by integrating a variety of data, including airborne ice-penetrating radar observations and spaceborne radar altimetry.
Researchers working at Vostok Station have already contributed greatly to climatology by producing one of the world's longest ice cores in 1998. A joint Russian, French and U.S, team drilled and analyzed the core, which is 3,623 meters (11,886 feet) long.
The core contains layers of ice deposited over millennia, representing a record of Earth's climate stretching back more than 420,000 years. Drilling of the core was deliberately halted roughly 150 meters (492 feet) above the suspected boundary where the ice sheet and the liquid waters of the lake are thought to meet to prevent contamination of the lake.
It is from samples of this ice core, specifically from ice that is thought to have formed from lake water freezing onto the base of the ice sheet, that NSF-funded scientists believe they have found evidence that the lake water supports life. Their research was published in Science in 1999.
For more information, see: http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/news/press/99/pr9972.htm
More recently, NSF-funded researchers from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, using data gathered by the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics, published a paper in Nature suggesting that the hydrodynamics of Lake Vostok may make it possible to search for evidence of life in the layers of ice that accumulate on the lake's eastern shore. Scientists say such a possibility would provide another avenue for exploring the lake's potential as a harbor for microscopic life, in addition to exploring the lake itself. For more information, see: http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/news/02/pr0219.htm
International consensus building
Discussions at an NSF workshop for U.S. researchers held in 1998, a subsequent international meeting held in Cambridge, England in 1999, as well as other international meetings about subglacial lakes, have formed the basis for a developing scientific consensus on whether, and how, to proceed with exploring the lake's waters.
To read a report from the 1998 NSF workshop "Lake Vostok: A Curiosity or a Focus for Interdisciplinary Study?" see: http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/vostok/
The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) hosts a Web site on subglacial lake exploration with links to several reports from various international workshops. See: http://salegos-scar.montana.edu/
Peter West, NSF, (703) 292-8070, email@example.com
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