Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Mysterious Lake Vostok

What lurks beneath the dark depths of the Antarctic ice? That almost sounds like the opening line in a bad SiFi story. The thing is it really is a question that scientists are asking about a strange fresh water lake found below the ice in the Antarctic. Let’s take a closer look…

In 1957 the Russians established a remote base in Antarctica - the Vostok station. It soon became a byword for hardship - dependent on an epic annual 625 mile tractor journey from the coast for its supplies. The coldest temperature ever found on Earth over 128°F below zero or -89°C was recorded here on the 21st July 1983. It’s an unlikely setting for a lake of liquid water. But in the 1970’s a British team used airborne radar to see beneath the ice, mapping the mountainous land buried by the Antarctic ice sheet. Flying near the Vostok base their radar trace suddenly went flat. They guessed that the flat trace could only be from water. It was the first evidence that the ice could be hiding a great secret.

But 20 years passed before their suspicions were confirmed, when satellites finally revealed that there was an enormous lake under the Vostok base. At just over 6213 square miles it is one of the largest lakes in the world and is about the size of Lake Ontario, but about twice as deep (about 550 yards in some places). The theory was that it could only exist because the ice acts like a giant insulating blanket, trapping enough of the earth’s heat to melt the very bottom of the ice sheet.

Biologists believe that because the lake has been cut off from the rest of the planet for 15 million years or more - well before the human race evolved - microbial life in the lake could have quietly been evolving into strange and unique forms. It’s a uniquely hostile environment for life - permanently low temperatures, hundreds of atmospheres of pressure, and no light for photosynthesis. In fact, as NASA has realized, the conditions directly replicate those found on Europa - the icy moon of Jupiter. So finding microbial life in Lake Vostok has a greater significance, but what are the odds of finding life in a cold, dark world?

Who knows but a few years ago, researchers found something that sent shivers through the scientific community: a diverse community of microbial life-forms that live without sunlight or a ready supply of nutrients.

The scientists were not searching deep space when they made their find. Rather, they were sampling the bottom of a 2.5-mile-thick Antarctic ice sheet.

The frozen mass covers Lake Vostok, a liquid freshwater lake that is underground and not at all frozen! Scientists demonstrated that the bottom layer of the ice sheet, the same one that contained the microbial life-forms, was composed of accreted, or frozen, lake water.

This, in turn, led scientists to suggest that a large, diverse community of microbes lived in the lake itself. If true, the theory would answer questions about the limits of life on Earth and expand the range of environments that might potentially host life-forms in space.

Two independent research teams announced the initial discovery of the Antarctic ice sheet microbes in the December 10, 1999, issue of the journal Science.

One study was led by John Priscu, an ecologist with the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences at Montana State University in Bozeman. The other by David Karl, a microbial biologist with the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.

Since then the research teams and others have further analyzed the microbes. They've sought to describe the microbes' diversity and to determine whether or not the microbes might actually be contaminants introduced to ice-core samples by the instruments used to gather and study them.

According to Priscu, new data gathered by his team shows that the microbes have diverse physiologies. The data also suggest that Lake Vostok hosts the life-forms in high abundance, he said.

"I believe there are about 10,000 [microbial] cells per milliliter [0.2 teaspoon] in Lake Vostok surface water, which is about a hundred times lower than that typical in the open ocean," Priscu said.

Karl's team has also conducted further analysis and found that a viable microbe population lives in the Antarctic lake buried under miles of ice. Although Karl noted that "the biomass may be very low."

Other scientists, however, have disputed the initial findings of both research teams, suggesting that it was the instruments used to retrieve and study the ice core samples that were contaminated with microbes—not the bottom layer of the ice sheet.

Punching the through 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) of ice covering Lake Vostok to sample the lake water should resolve that scientific dispute.

The international scientific community is eager to do so, but nations disagree on how to proceed. U.S. and European scientists favor cautious approaches and are searching for funding.

Martin Siegert, a glaciologist in the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, heads a proposal to sample waters from Lake Ellsworth, a smaller subglacial lake in the western Antarctic, before venturing into Lake Vostok.

Siegert said that developing the appropriate Lake Vostok exploration program will cost several tens of millions of dollars (U.S.). By contrast, Lake Ellsworth, which is smaller and the ice above it warmer, can be sampled for about four million dollars (U.S.), she said.

"We can go into this lake, undertake an analysis of the water, and prove once and for all whether the water and sediments are truly the fascinating environment we think they are," Siegert said. "Once done, we can upscale the next mission, eventually going to Vostok."

U.S. scientists also have several plans to systematically explore the subglacial Antarctic lakes. Priscu noted, however, that securing funds for these programs has proved difficult.

Meanwhile, a team of Russian scientists recently announced plans to drill into Lake Vostok in the Antarctic 2006-2007 summer season.

"I applaud the Russian program for moving ahead with bold plans, but I would have rather seen it be an international effort with stronger environmental, education, and science programs, all of which are in the spirit of Antarctic research," Priscu said.

So what do I think? I think that Lake Vostok and all the mysteries it holds is just more proof that we truly do walk in a weird and wonderful world. Check back again next time as we take a look into more mysteries that lay below the icy depths.

I’m Average Joe

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