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Jewish World Review
Feb. 8, 2012/ 15 Shevat, 5772
At Lake Vostok, Russia taps into new realm
At one of the coldest and most remote places on Earth, with an Antarctic winter on the doorstep, a team of Russian scientists earlier this week completed drilling through more than 12,000 feet of ice to reach a lake lost to the outside world for millions of years.
The breaching of Lake Vostok has been anticipated and feared by climate scientists and biologists ever since 1996, when researchers first realized that it was there.
In fact, researchers have used satellites and ice-penetrating radar to identify more than 400 ice-buried lakes on the continent thus far -- separate British and American teams plan to seek samples from two smaller lakes within the next two years. The lakes remain liquid because they're heated by energy from the center of the planet.
Lake Vostok, located below the Russian science station by the same name in the middle of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, is likely the biggest of the lakes, about the same as Lake Ontario and up to 1,600 feet deep.
So what's in the water?
Sci-fi mavens and online conspiracy theorists have touted everything from lost alien civilizations to secret Nazi hideouts secreted in the depths.
But the scientific reality of Vostok and other lakes is equally intriguing. Researchers have been plucking core samples of Antarctic ice for decades and they know it contains air bubbles from long-lost atmospheres and cold-tolerant microbes.
So, along with climate data that might go back a million years, the lake waters are likely to hold some unique, maybe even advanced life forms (we're talkin' blind fish or mineral-consuming plant life, no long-lost dinos).
Extraplanetary biologists think the lakes could be a model for under-ice oceans on moons of Jupiter and Saturn, considered the closest places to Earth likely to host life.
Vostok is considered the most desirable sample because the lake's waters are so little changed. Scientists think most of the other lakes leak and thus change water over time.
Many scientists have argued against the Russian project because the drilling involves using fluids that might contaminate the lake -- or even introduce other bacteria. That's why the team switched to a cleaner drill system in January and stopped just short of a breakthrough this week, allowing hydraulic pressure from below to let water seep up into the bore and freeze.
Then, if all goes well, next December they'll return to recover and start testing ice cubes made from some of the most ancient water on Earth.
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