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Earth Institute News

posted 03/03/01

Miles Below Antarctic Ice,
a Freshwater Lake May Harbor Ancient Life

By Robert Lee Hotz, L.A. Times Science Writer

Part 4: A Russian Outpost

VOSTOK, ANTARCTICA--At the far end of the landing strip — at the very edge of the ice horizon — is a sliver of snow-drifted buildings and radio towers known as Vostok Station--a Russian scientific outpost on the ice above the lake that researchers have manned almost continuously for 40 years.

The station sits over the south end of the lake at the precise geomagnetic South Pole, surrounded by decades' worth of discarded machinery, waste and rubbish.

In the annals of Antarctica, the privations of the Russian scientists at Vostok have made the station's name a synonym for hardship.

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The ice cap cross section at Vostok shows the existing Russian research station and the bore hole that scientists studying the ancient climate have drilled to within a few hundred feet of the lake. R. E. Bell / M. Studinger, 2001

Over the years, the Russian scientists here have endured temperatures colder than parts of Mars, dwindling support and reflexive skepticism about the quality of their research from colleagues in Europe and the United States.

Recent financial cutbacks in the Russian Antarctic Program have left the station with half its normal staff. The austerity measures also mean that Vostok can be resupplied just once a year. Fuel and food are hauled overland by tractors about 900 miles from the coast. Mechanical breakdowns sometimes prevent the overland tractor trains from reaching Vostok.

When the supply column stalled halfway to Vostok late last year, the U.S. Air National Guard airlifted emergency supplies to keep the Russian supply train moving.

"They are hanging by a thread," said Scott Borg, who oversees the NSF research effort at McMurdo.

It was Russian scientists at Vostok Station who discovered the lake and who first realized its unique potential.

Now they hope that the international effort to explore the life in the lake might benefit their own faltering research program.

By coincidence, the Russians have already drilled through most of the icecap over Lake Vostok. They had no idea the lake was there when they began decades ago.

In the most ambitious drilling program ever undertaken on the southernmost continent, the Russian scientists produced the world's deepest ice core, containing an irreplaceable chemical record of more than 400,000 years of Earth's changing climate and atmosphere. They did not learn of the lake's existence or appreciate its importance until the project neared completion.

But in 1998, as the drill reached within a hundred yards of the surface of the lake, they deliberately stopped. No one wanted to risk contaminating the water.

To keep the ice hole from freezing shut as they worked, however, the Russian scientists over the years pumped it full of aviation fuel and Freon. Now there is too much drilling fluid to be safely pumped out of the hole, stored aboveground, recycled or removed, Russian officials have reported.

At least 60 tons of the toxic chemicals sit in a narrow column that reaches to within a few hundred feet of the lake, like a needle poised above a bubble of expectations.

It could be five years before all the difficulties have been resolved and a project can be organized to explore the lake, and a decade before its pristine waters are breached, U.S. officials said.

"Lake Vostok is an international treasure," said Karl Erb, director of the NSF Office of Polar Programs, which oversees most research conducted in Antarctica.

"We have to convince not just the scientific community but the entire world that we can do this without contaminating the lake."

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Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times
Reprinted with Permission