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On February 5, after nearly two decades, a team of Russian scientists finally drilled through the ice sheets of Antarctica and reached the buried Lake Vostok, which has not been exposed to light or air in nearly twenty million years.
“This has never been done before. It’s a one-of-a-kind drill, a one-of-a-kind borehole, and a one-of-a-kind lake,” John Priscu, a microbiologist from the University of Montana, who has been involved with Lake Vostok, tells OurAmazingPlanet.
Using sonar and satellites, scientists discovered dozens of lakes under the frozen continent in the early ’90s. These lakes can exist due to the geothermal heat that is trapped by the ice sheets, keeping the water warm. The Russian scientists had to drill 3.8 km (4.2 miles) below the surface. Lake Vostok is one of the largest underground lakes in the world and the biggest in Antarctica, having a dimension of 250 kilometers by 30 kilometers (155 miles by 30 miles).
Because Lake Vostok has been buried for tens of millions of years, the air consists of pure oxygen, and the water is pristine. The team took precautions to not pollute the water with kerosene, Freon, and other chemicals used for the equipment. Since the drilling began, several environmental groups have been opposing the team’s actions.
However, the team has assured that there has been no such contamination because the chemicals are less dense than water, and if they did manage to leak through, they would float up the hole, according to LiveScience.
Life forms in the form of microbes may thrive in Lake Vostok and possibly in other lakes beneath the Antarctic. According to the Associated Press, Lev Satayugin, a researcher at Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI), hopes that any life would help “expand the human knowledge of the origins of life.” Because they would have been cut off from the rest of the world and lived in isolation, any species would very likely be the same ones that existed before the Ice Age.
If there is life, it would be like studying extraterrestrial life forms because the extreme conditions are similar to those of Jupiter’s moon, Europa. “Conditions in subglacial lakes in Antarctica are the closest we can get to those where scientists expect to find extraterrestrial life,” Valery Lukin tells the Associated Press. Lukin is the head of Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI).
Unfortunately, the team will have to put off exploring the lake until summer due to the frigid Antarctic winter. Then, robots built with video cameras will collect samples of water and sediment.
Numerous past Nazi rumors involving Lake Vostok resurfaced now that the lake has been reached, one rumor being that near the end of World War II, the Nazis built a secret base, where the remains of Adolf and Elena Hitler were brought for cloning.