Submerged Antarctic Lakes Within Reach

Three teams are drilling at separate locations

By Tudor Vieru, Science Editor March 24th, 2010, 08:04 GMT
Original article here

Millions of years ago, as Antarctica was covered by plains and mountains, not ice, lakes adorned its surface, as they do on all other continents. As the weather cooled, and ice began to form, the majority of these lakes solidified, and became a part of the thick ice sheet currently covering the Southern Continent. But a small part of these lakes endured. They were covered by a cap of ice, on which miles of other ice deposited itself. Now, researchers are drilling to get to them, for several different reasons, Nature News reports.

The most important is life. With millions of years gone since the microorganisms in these underground lakes had any contact with the outside world, biologists hypothesize that they changed considerably. Finding out how life can evolve within such tightly-closed ecosystems is of tremendous importance for space exploration, among others. If bacteria, microbes and viruses can endure in the freezing, oxygen-free conditions of submerged lakes, then it shouldn’t be too far-fetched to believe that the same can happen in the covered ocean of Enceladus, or in the liquid hydrocarbon lakes of Titan.

Using advanced observations methods, geologists and other experts were able to observe the contours of these lakes even through the miles of ice covering them, and have set up experiments to get to them. Three nations are currently engaged in this type of efforts. At a joint meeting they held last week, researchers from the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Russian Federations, described the progress they registered in their drills this far. They also exposed their plans on how to handle this delicate task. All experts involved underlined the fact that breaching the surface of these lakes would need to be conducted in an environment as sterile as an operating room.

Any small contaminants from the outside world could change the ecosystem in a matter of minutes, and so this needs to be avoided at all costs. Still the curiosity to explore the world’s last unknown ecosystem is very great. Experts say that these subglacial lakes will be reached next year, as the technology needed to avoid contamination will be produced, delivered to Antarctica, installed, and then operated. Though three groups are working on this type of exploration, there are at least 150 underground lakes under the ices, all of them identified as having various ages and sizes. They will most likely constitute a target for future investigations.

Teams set for first taste of Antarctic lakes
Samples could reveal unique life forms from beneath the ice.

Quirin Schiermeier

The pitch-black lakes hidden beneath Antarctica’s ice sheet will finally start to release their secrets next year. At a meeting last week, scientists from Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States described their plans to explore the planet’s last uncharted ecosystems by drilling into three very different examples of these subglacial lakes.

Over the past 40 years, radar imagery has revealed around 150 freshwater lakes of various sizes and ages beneath the massive Antarctic ice sheet. Some have been isolated from the outside world for millions of years, raising the possibility that they hold unique life forms. The dark, nutrient-deprived environment of the lakes could resemble conditions on Jupiter’s moon Europa, which is assumed to hold a large ocean beneath its frozen surface.

Scientists have longed to draw samples from the lakes, but technical problems and environmental concerns have slowed their progress. Now, the Russian team expects to reach its quarry, Lake Vostok, by February 2011. The Americans and British will follow several years later with forays into lakes with different hydrological and geological characteristics (see graphic).

“Over the next few years we’ll be able to explore a continental-scale ecosystem that has never before been sampled,” says Robin Bell, a senior researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. “This is a madly exciting endeavour.”

Lake Vostok is the best known and largest of the subglacial lakes, measuring roughly the size of Lake Ontario. Buried beneath almost 4,000 metres of ice in eastern Antarctica, the lake is thought to be 35 million years old and could host ancient microbial life.

Russian drillers had planned to penetrate the lake in the 2008–09 Antarctic field season, but their drill got stuck 80 metres above the lake surface. All technical problems have been resolved during the past field season, says Valery Lukin, director of the Russian Antarctic programme, who spoke at the meeting, held by the American Geophysical Union in Baltimore, Maryland.

Some researchers worry that a Russian success could come at the cost of biological and chemical contamination of the pristine waters. “Let’s hope they don’t spoil the lake,” says Robert Bindschadler, a glaciologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Lukin says that his country’s team has come up with plans to safeguard Lake Vostok. The team will cut through the ice using a heated drill, with non-toxic silicone oil serving as the lubricating fluid. It will also explore the lake in stages; at first it will only suck up a water sample before allowing the bottom of the hole to refreeze. Plans for lowering instruments into the lake to explore the bottom sediment will be postponed until an extra environmental assessment has been completed.

The Antarctic Treaty’s committee for environmental protection is expected to approve the Russian plans in October, although there is no official requirement for the team to wait until then. “The Russians are trying very hard to do it right, and that means a lot,” says Bell.

At the meeting, US and British researchers described their longer-term plans for exploring subglacial lakes on the opposite side of the pole. Lake Ellsworth, a relatively small lake in western Antarctica, is the target for researchers from the British Antarctic Survey. And over the next two field seasons, US researchers will conduct radar surveys from the surface to study Lake Whillans near Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf, says Ross Powell, a geologist at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. The US$20-million Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project, which Powell oversees, plans to drill into the lake during the 2012–13 field season.

Lake Whillans has a subsurface connection with the ocean beneath the ice shelf, making it more dynamic than isolated lakes such as Vostok. “We know that the lake surface is constantly falling and rising, and we assume the lake is occasionally draining and refilling completely,” says Powell.

The ebb and flow of lakes such as Whillans are thought to influence
the movement of the overlying ice sheet. The WISSARD team will study
processes at the interface of ice and water that affect the movement.

With so many drilling projects, “it’s like going fishing in the
Everglades, in the Rocky Mountains and in Northern Canada”, says Bell.
“The catch will be very different and we’re going to learn a lot.”