As reported by the BBC’s Johnathan Amos, Russian researchers are claiming success at drilling through the continental ice sheet in Antarctica to be the first humans to make contact with Lake Vostok. Vostok is one of about 300 lakes of liquid fresh water that have been completely covered by Antarctica’s continental glacier for perhaps millions of years. Lake Vostok is located in eastern Antarctica, and is estimated to be similar in size to Lake Ontario. A British survey team is currently drilling through the ice in western Antarctica in a bid to make contact with Lake Ellsworth, and an American team is working on access to Lake Whillans near the Ross Ice Shelf.
What’s so exciting here? Well, these freshwater lakes have been completely dark for a very long time, but they are warmed by geothermal energy and the intense pressure exerted by the continental ice sheet. The result is relatively warm, liquid water. These are exactly the conditions thought to exist beneath the ice on Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus. Could microbial life that might be found in Lake Vostok provide insights into the evolution of novel life forms elsewhere in our solar system?
Of course, the coolness of this research is not only related to its ties to exobiology, but also to conditions on our own planet, long ago. Congratulations, Comrades! We look forward to learning a lot from your achievement.
Update 27 December 2012: British team aband0ns current effort to reach Lake Ellsworth.