After several days of uncertainty, the head of Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute has confirmed that a drilling project that started over 20 years ago has finally made it through nearly four kilometers of ice to reach Lake Vostok. The lake is similar in size to one of the smaller Great Lakes of North America, but has been buried under an enormous sheet of ice for about 30 million years.
We already know strange things go on in the environments that have been trapped under ice in the Antarctic—witness the blood falls, which spill out of a glacier that has trapped an iron-based ecosystem on the frozen continent. That raises the chance that Lake Vostok harbors microbes that have survived the cold and crushing pressures underneath a different ice sheet. Unfortunately, we won’t know until next year, since the team cleared out before retrieving samples from the bottom of their bore hole.
Although some people might fear unleashing 30 million year old bacteria into the modern world, most of the contamination worries went in the opposite direction: this may be a unique and untouched ecosystem, and it would be tragic if the precautions the Russians put in place weren’t sufficient to keep surface bacteria from hitching a ride on the drilling equipment. But some are already speculating that we may be able to drop a robotic submersible into the bore hole and explore the lake remotely.