lake vostok..frozen in time
Lake Vostok is huge lake
beneath the Antacrtic ice, sealed off from
the rest of the world for so long that it may contain unique evolved
Shown below :Microbes in ice above Lake Vostok
Lake Vostok is a large (10,000km2), presumably fresh water body located beneath four km of ice at 77oS105oE in East Antarctica. The lake is approximately 250km long and 50km wide, with depths ranging from 500-10m. The overlying ice provides a continuous paleoclimatic record of 400,000 years, although the lake may have been isolated for a much longer time. Because of the long isolation of this lake, it is believed that the water inside Lake Vostok could contain new lifeforms, and unique geochemical processes. For five years, scientists in Russia and the United States have sought to probe Vostok to discover the secrets lying inside this pristine body of water.
Image: ABC News:
(For an impressive slide show on Lake Vostok, visit http://www.homepage.montana.edu/~lkbonney/DOCS/AAAS%20Prsentation.htm )
For a longer introduction to Lake Vostok and the issues, read this ASOC paper on options for Lake Vostok.
So what's the problem? Well, basically the issue turns on the reality that it is impossible to penetrate an isolated ecosystem without contaminating it. The catch 22 inherent in Lake Vostok is that the very thing that make it potentially unique: its millenia of isolation from the rest of the world, cannot be explored without introduction of the outer world to Lake Vostok.
For instance, NASA, the US Space Agency, has expressed interest in penetrating Lake Vostok to search for microbes that might be similar to ones on other planets. According to NASA's Chric Mackay, "How the bacteria get energy (to survive) is an important question. The lake could be an analog to sub-ice Europa or subsurface Mars where conditions are similar."(Divining Water on Europa)
Can we penetrate Lake Vostok
without disturbing the water? No one
Possible mechanism shown below:
For several years, Russia has planned to penetrate the lake, but ASOC, and others, have forced the delay of the project until 2003-2004, awaiting the writing of a Comprehensive Environmental Assessment (CEE) of the project. Russia has promised to submit a CEE for review by the Parties at ATCM XXVI in Madrid, June, 2003.
Can this be done safely, without endangering the Environment? Are we rushing to drill into Lake Vostok without considering all the alternatives? Once the lake is penetrated, it will be impossible to pretend that the water is still isolated. What's the rush? Lake Vostok has sat untouched for millenia, another couple of years to ensure the protection of this unique resource won't hurt.
ASOC Papers on Lake Vostok:
ASOC Position on Recent Developments in Subglacial Lake Exploration (Excerpt from ASOC Report to XXV ATCM, Warsaw, Poland, 2002)
Applying Environmental Impact Assessment to Lake Vostok (ASOC 2001 Paper, SALE GOS Workshop, The Hague)
click for larger image
More than 70 lakes have been
identified beneath the thick Antarctic
ice sheet from ice-penetrating radar (Siegert et al., 1996). Most of
these lakes, captured between 3-4 kilometers of ice, are several
kilometers long and are primarily located beneath the major ice
divides. One of these lakes, Lake Vostok, is an order of magnitude
larger than others. This lake is a large system and represents the
closest analogue to Europa the ice covered Jovian moon and to a
Neoproterozoic subglacial environment. Lake Vostok was identified in
1996 by Russian and British scientists (Kapitsa et al., 1996) who
integrated data ranging from down-hole seismics, star observations and
airborne ice-penetrating radar to new spaceborne altimetric
observations. The horizontal extent of the lake is estimated from the
flat surface (0.01 degrees) observed in the ERS-1 ice surface
altimetry. The 4-kilometer-thick ice sheet goes afloat as it crosses
the lake, just as ice sheets become floating ice shelves at the
grounding line. The subglacial environment represents one of the most
oligotrophic environments on Earth, an environment with low nutrient
levels and low standing stocks of viable organisms. If life thrives in
the environments it may have to depend on alternative energy sources
and survival strategies. A flash animation illustrates the basal
freezing process and the flow of the ice sheet over the lake: (Vostok
Los Angeles Times article on Lake Vostok
On March 4, 2001, the LA Times printed an article about Lake Vostok on the front page.Science and Science News articles on Lake Vostok
Reprint of the article on the Columbia Earth Institute web page.
On March 3, 2001, Science Magazine and Science News featured articles about Lake Vostok.Geotimes article on Lake Vostok
Science article by Robert Irion.
East Antarctica played opossum.Scientific American article on Lake Vostok
Article by Christina Reed.
Out in the cold.NSF workshop on Lake Vostok
Scientific American article by Wayt Gibbs.
Lake Vostok: A Curiosity or a Focus for Interdisciplinary Study?SCAR workshop on Lake Vostok
Workshop in Washington D.C., November 7-8, 1998.
sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Workshop report by Robin E. Bell and David M. Karl.
Sub-Glacial Lake Vostok: Science Opportunities and Technological Challenges.NSF news release on Lake Vostok
Workshop in Cambridge (UK), September 26-27, 1999.
sponsored by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR).
Workshop program by Cynan Ellis-Evans.
On August 3, 1999, NSF's Office of Legislative and Public Affairs announced a news release on Lake Vostok.BBC news release on Lake Vostok
On September 27, 1999, BBC announced a news release on Lake Vostok.Science News article on Lake Vostok
On October 2, 1999, Science News published an article about Lake Vostok and the SCAR workshop.
JPL/NASA Europa/Lake Vostok Initiative
The JPL/NASA site contains a space perspective on Lake Vostok.