Saturday, January 8, 2011

Forgotten for 14,000,000 Years, Waiting Under the Ice

"Drill Close to Reaching 14-Million-Year-Old Antarctic Lake"
Duncan Geere, Wired UK, Wired Science (January 7, 2011)

"Lake Vostok, which has been sealed off from the world for 14 million years, is about to be penetrated by a Russian drill bit...."

Lake Vostok is about two and a half miles below the surface of Antarctica's icecap - and most likely won't come in contact with that drill bit. Several paragraphs later, the same article identifies the technology that'll be used for the last several yards as a "thermal lance."

Maybe that's nitpicking, but the Lemming prefers that articles be internally consistent, at least.

Moving along.

There's more than the depth of this subglacial lake that makes it special:

"...The lake, which lies 2.5 miles below the icy surface of Antarctica, is unique in that it's been completely isolated from the other 150 subglacial lakes on the continent for such a long time. It's also oligotropic, meaning that it's supersaturated with oxygen: Levels of the element are 50 times higher than those found in most typical freshwater lakes...."

Researchers have been trying to get at Lake Vostok for two decades. There's more of a challenge to the job, than just being in a place that's even less hospitable than Minnesota in winter.

The trick isn't just getting a probe into the lake. It's getting a clean probe into the lake. The place has been cut off from the rest of Earth's life for a remarkably long time - which makes any critters found there very, very interesting indeed.

Provided that contemporary critters don't get at them first. Hence the need for being really, really tidy about the drilling process.

Here's where the thermal lance is mentioned:

"...The drill bit currently sits less than 328 feet above the lake. Once it reaches 65 to 98 feet, the mechanical drill bit will be replaced with a thermal lance that's equipped with a camera...."

"...When the sample can be recovered, however, it's hoped that it'll shed light on extremophiles — lifeforms that survive in extreme environments. Life in Lake Vostok would need adaptions to the oxygen-rich environment, which could include high concentrations of protective enzymes. The conditions in Lake Vostok are very similar to the conditions on Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus, so the new data could also strengthen the case for extraterrestrial life...."

This wouldn't be the first time that microbes from a very old, very isolated, ecosystem on Earth have been recovered and studied. (June 15, 2009) It's still a rare opportunity to study life that has been out of the loop for a very long time.

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