What Lies Beneath Lake Vostok? Part One

I chose to take a look at the controversy surrounding drilling at the site of Lake Vostok due not only to the scientific dilemma involved, but also the environmental and moral dilemmas involved regarding how far we can go regarding the living space of other organisms. I also chose to discuss this because of a hypothesis I have as well regarding the impact on such drilling in ice already melting due to climate change. I will present that below.
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Lake Vostok, located in central Antarctica, is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. It is as big as Lake Ontario, and 50 times larger than Lake Tahoe and is located 2 1/2 miles beneath the ice of Antarctica. It was discovered in full in 1996 by mapping of the flat ice surface from the European ERS 1 satellite. This flash animation will give you a good idea as to what the current controversy about continued drilling to the lake surface is about: Flash animation of Lake Vostok Also See: Michael Studinger's Homepage On Lake Vostok What is hidden in Lake Vostok? What kind of lifeforms can live in such an environment with no light and no nutrients?

Scientists are curious as to the answer, as microbes have been found suggesting that there are life forms supported under the ice, perhaps even fish. Studies of the core estimate its age at 420,000 years old, which means that Lake Vostok has been sealed under this ice for almost 500,000 years. This bacterium was found in melt samples taken from an ice core extracted from the bottom layer of a 2.5-mile-thick (4-kilometer-thick) Antarctic ice sheet. The microbe raises, and perhaps answers, questions about the ability of life to exist in extremely cold, dark, and nutrient-deprived environments.


Image courtesy NSF.
Image explanation courtesy of:

National Geographic Article:

The questions raised then are, what purpose does drilling in this pristine ancient world serve, and do we have the moral right to disturb it? Would any environmental effects be outweighed by the scientific advances that could be made from this research? Also, is that research accurate? Lake Vostok is also supersaturated with oxygen and other gases that are trapped in a icy cage (called a clathrate) making any bringing of it to the surface potentially volatile and hazardous to scientists and the surrounding environment, as well as hazardous to any lifeforms present there. However, scientists are hoping that confirming the presence of lifeforms in this environment will give credence to their hypothesis regarding life on Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter which shares similarities with Lake Vostok which would then answer many questions regarding the limits of life here on Earth. It could be a potentially groundbreaking discovery, but on the flip side, at what cost to our environment?
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Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition

From the site:

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? No one knows. 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.
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Looks as though based on this, we would be the invasive species. And I agree with ASOC, what's the rush? Is there such a need to do this without any other alternatives being considered? In this age of modern technology is there no other way to determine the answers to their questions without drilling? What responsibility would we then have for any damage done to the ecosystem(s) below this vast expanse of ice? And also, according to my hypothesis, I believe such drilling done in a prolonged fashion may cause glacial earthquakes (which was confirmed in a 2003 study.)

*That will be covered in my next entry along with news regarding climate change effects in the Antarctic. Also, their corrolation to this issue as well as other future attempts to disturb pristine areas either for scientific reasons, or in the search for oil or water to satisfy our thirst for both.

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