Sunday, February 6, 2011
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NASA photo of Lake Vostok in Antarctica.
It’s a race against the clock for a group of drillers as they hurriedly work to hit their goal depth while in an extremely dangerous and foreign environment. No, it’s not the plot of the 1998 sci-fi/action film Armageddon. It’s a true story for a group of Russian scientists in the Antarctic, frantically drilling into the southern-most continent’s largest sub glacial lake – Lake Vostok.
Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI) has been overseeing the team’s endeavors for the past few weeks as the scientists have drilled non-stop. The goal: to reach the lake’s isolated water located 4,000 meters (13,000 ft) below the ice sheet’s surface. And the latest update from the camp shows them only 20 meters (164 feet) away from their goal depth. But they are running out of time.
February 6th marks the end of the Antarctic summer – that’s right, summer – which means conditions surrounding the lake turn substantially more hostile and planes will no longer be able to land near the researchers’ base. Currently the team is working in -40 degrees Celsius (-40 degrees Fahrenheit), but during the winter, it can get twice as freezing. Lake Vostok boasts the lowest recorded temperature on Earth: -89.4 degrees Celsius (-129 degrees Fahrenheit).
“I know they will try everything they can to get through this year,” Dr. John Priscu professor of Ecology at Montana State University, told FoxNews.com. “Once they reach the lake water, they want to get the water up through the hole and let it freeze there over the winter. Then they’ll come back next year and start to do research on what they find.”
While there are only a few researchers that are actually working at the lake, scientists around the globe have been waiting with baited breath to see what the Russian’s unearth this weekend
“We are terribly interested in what they find,” Alan Rodger, a scientist at the British Antarctic Survey, told FoxNews.com. “This is a lake that we don’t think has been exposed for 15 million years. Therefore, if there is life there, we’re going to have so many questions. How has it evolved over those years, how has it survived, what does it look like? Won’t it be exciting to find something completely new on Planet Earth?”
Scientists are more than a little excited, since they have been waiting for this moment for quite some time. The Lake Vostok project has been years in the making, with initial drilling at the massive lake -- 15,690 square kilometers (6,060 sq mi) -- starting in 1998. Initially, they were able to reach 3,600 meters, but had to stop due to concerns of possible contamination of the never-before-touched lake water.
“Ice isn’t like rock, it’s capable of movement,” Dr. Priscu told FoxNews.com. “So in order to keep the hole from squeezing shut, they put a fluid in the drill called kerosene. Kerosene also grows bacteria, and there’s about 65 tons of kerosene in that hole. It would be a disaster if that kerosene contaminated this pristine lake.”
But the scientists came up with a clever way to make sure this debacle would not occur. They agreed to drill until a sensor warned them of free water. At that point they will take out the right amount of kerosene and adjust the pressure so that none of the liquids fall into the lake, but rather lake water would rise through the hole.
But it’s still uncertain whether or not the team will even get to that point this year. FoxNews.com reached out to AARI for a comment, but received no response – no doubt trying to reach their deadline. But regardless if they make it this weekend or not, scientists say that the real adventure is still yet to come.
“There’s plenty more to do in the coming years,” Dr. Piscu told FoxNews.com. “This is only the beginning.”
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