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Touching the Oldest Water on Earth

Science & Tech  (tags: discovery, interesting, world, research, science, water, Lake Vostok, environment, Antarctica )

- 2326 days ago -
A Russian drilling expedition in Antarctica is close to breaking through four kilometres of ice to sample the pristine waters of Lake Vostok, which has not seen daylight for millions of years.

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Sue Matheson (79)
Sunday February 5, 2012, 10:15 am

Michael O (176)
Sunday February 5, 2012, 10:15 am
By Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks

It's a fascinating project, but it has international scientists seriously concerned about contamination of a lake that might have been isolated from the rest of world for tens of millions of years.

A sub-glacial lake, about the size and shape of Lake Ontario, Lake Vostok is one of the largest fresh water lakes in the world, yet it remained unknown until the 1990s.

Since then, satellite data and radar measurements have revealed that Vostok is just one of several lakes hidden under the Antarctic ice cap. A combination of pressure from the ice above and heat from the Earth below keeps these lakes liquid even though they are located in the coldest region of the planet.

Scientists are anxious to sample the waters of the lakes to look for microbes that could be unlike any others on Earth since they live in isolated environments virtually cut off from all other life on the planet.

If life has persisted down there, it raises hopes that similar life could exist in oceans under the icy surfaces of frozen moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

Photos of Jupiter's moon Europa show a surface totally covered in ice, with fracture patterns indicating that the ice moves around and must therefore be floating on a global ocean.

Saturn's icy moon Enceladus is actually spewing water out of ice volcanoes erupting at it's south pole. These moons could hold our first proof that life exists beyond Earth.

But drilling through kilometres of ice on a distant frozen moon is an enormously difficult and expensive task that is not likely to happen for decades, which is why the Antarctic expedition is so compelling.

The biggest challenge in reaching Lake Vostok, however, is investigating this pristine environment without contaminating or changing it.

The drilling technology used by the Russians involves hot water and drilling fluids such as kerosene, which are substances that ideally you do not want to enter Lake Vostok.

The scientists must also make sure that the drill bit and any instruments inserted into the water do not contain any microbes from the surface. That would not only mess up the scientific readings, but could expose the microbes in the lake to what amounts to an invasive species.

Another Antarctic drilling project into sub-glacial Lake Ellesworth by a British team is using more modern equipment and taking extreme precautions to make sure their equipment is sterilized.

Neither project has broken through yet.

One suggestion to protect the lake water is to allow it to flow up into the drill hole and take samples from there.

But in fact, the most valuable information about life and the history of the lake lies in the mud and sediments at the bottom, which means eventually, sending a probe down through the entire water column.

This isn't the first time science has been in a position to learn a tremendous amount about a new environment but at the same time, risked contaminating exactly what was being studied. Just look at the tons of equipment left scattered all over the moon.

At least the robotic landers sent to Mars are baked before leaving Earth to get rid of microbes.

There is the possibility that the life in Lake Vostok is not so isolated or as old as previously thought. Radar data suggests the lakes may occasionally become connected so there would be a flow between them. The ice above is also moving, which could transport microbes out of the lakes.

Whatever the case, scientists involved in Antarctic research are watching the drilling projects closely to ensure every precaution is taken to preserve the purity of the sub-glacial lake environment.

If new forms of life are found down there and the water is contaminated, that life will have to deal with what to them would be an alien invasion by humans.

. (0)
Sunday February 5, 2012, 10:33 am
Very interesting... noted and thanks!

Joan S (41)
Sunday February 5, 2012, 11:37 am
This is very cool and yes disturbing. The extreme curiosity of finding stuff so pristine and yet by doing that destroying it at the same time. Quite a conundrum.

Freya H (357)
Sunday February 5, 2012, 12:07 pm
There could be some interesting life forms down there - but there could also be bacteria and viruses against which we have no defense. OK, maybe that last phrase was a tad paranoid, but we still need to be careful to minimize, if not entirely eliminate, contamination of this unique environment, as well as of our own.

Roger G (154)
Sunday February 5, 2012, 12:30 pm
noted, thanks !

Bob P (394)
Monday February 6, 2012, 10:02 am
mans attempt to ruin some thing else

Past Member (0)
Monday February 6, 2012, 10:55 am
an ounce of prevention is worth more then a pound of cure
life has value beyond measure
Peace and Love

Rosie Lopez (73)
Monday February 6, 2012, 11:39 am
awesome thanks for sharing!!

Stelizan L (258)
Monday February 6, 2012, 12:24 pm
Fascinating, yes, but maybe best left alone???

Past Member (0)
Monday February 6, 2012, 1:50 pm
Very interesting. Thanks for posting.

jayasri amma (10)
Monday February 6, 2012, 6:16 pm

Nelson Baker (0)
Monday February 6, 2012, 6:47 pm
They will surly contaminate the lake.

Darlene W (303)
Monday February 6, 2012, 9:49 pm
Noted and thank you. WHy are they drilling to begin with? Just can't leave well enough alone.

Herbert E (10)
Tuesday February 7, 2012, 2:37 am
Nestlé comes to my mind ...

Margery Coffey (8)
Tuesday February 7, 2012, 2:25 pm
So now we pollute it? Will we stop at nothing? There are some things that should not be disturbed.

Gloria Morotti (14)
Tuesday February 7, 2012, 7:17 pm
We need to be very careful with this investigation.

Carmen S (611)
Tuesday February 7, 2012, 7:18 pm
thanks Michael

Parvez Zuberi (7)
Tuesday February 7, 2012, 11:26 pm
Noted thanks for interesting article

Sam E M (0)
Wednesday February 8, 2012, 3:37 am
We wait for the results with bated breath. Let's just hope that no permanent damage will be done.

KS Goh (0)
Wednesday February 8, 2012, 4:46 am
Thanks for the article.

bharathi A (2)
Wednesday February 8, 2012, 3:44 pm
noted, thanks !

bharathi A (2)
Wednesday February 8, 2012, 3:45 pm
noted, thanks !

Quanta Kiran (67)
Wednesday February 8, 2012, 10:56 pm

M B (62)
Thursday February 9, 2012, 6:18 am
Let's just hope that no permanent damage will be done.

Robert O (12)
Saturday February 11, 2012, 4:30 pm
Thanks Michael.

cynthia l (207)
Thursday February 16, 2012, 12:12 am
fascinating and scary given the potential for damage

Nancy Roussy (79)
Sunday February 19, 2012, 3:38 pm
It must of driven a lot of people crazy to know that there was at least one place left on Earth untouched by humans! Destroy, kill, torture, modify, that's all the human race is good for!
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