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: http://abcnews.go.com/sections/science/DyeHard/dyehard991215.html
(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? (**webmaster note: drilling has
indeed been very difficult and contamination an issue**)
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
Impact Assessment to Lake Vostok (ASOC 2001 Paper, SALE GOS
Workshop, The Hague) Options
for Lake Vostok
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. Reprint
the article on the Columbia Earth Institute web page.
Science and Science News articles on Lake Vostok On March 3, 2001,
Science Magazine and Science News featured articles about Lake Vostok. Science
article by Robert Irion. Science
Geotimes article on Lake Vostok East Antarctica played opossum. Article
by Christina Reed.
Scientific American article on Lake Vostok Out in the cold. Scientific
article by Wayt Gibbs.
NSF workshop on Lake Vostok Lake Vostok: A Curiosity or a Focus for
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.
SCAR workshop on Lake Vostok Sub-Glacial Lake Vostok: Science
Opportunities and Technological Challenges.
Workshop in Cambridge (UK), September 26-27, 1999.
sponsored by the Scientific Committee on
Antarctic Research (SCAR). Workshop
program by Cynan Ellis-Evans. NSF news release on Lake Vostok On
August 3, 1999, NSF's Office of Legislative and Public Affairs announced a
news release on Lake Vostok. NSF
News Release on Lake Vostok.
BBC news release on Lake Vostok On September 27, 1999, BBC
announced a news release on Lake Vostok. BBC
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. Science
article on Lake Vostok.
JPL/NASA Europa/Lake Vostok Initiative The JPL/NASA site contains a space
perspective on Lake Vostok. The
JPl/NASA Europe/Vostok Initiative .
Space.com news release on Lake Vostok.
A biological perspective on Lake Vostok.
Creatures that live in extreme environments has been refered to as
extremeophiles to learn more click the link below...