Thursday, February 09, 2012

Antarctica - Geological Discovery of the Century ?

Ice-buried Lake Vostok now open to research.
After 20 million years: Access to pre-human life ?

Excerpts from today's publication of Daily Mail (February 9, 2012, published by Associated Newspapers Ltd, London):

After more than two decades of drilling in Antarctica, Russian scientists have confirmed that they reached the surface of a gigantic freshwater lake hidden under miles of ice for some 20 million years. The scientists returned 40 litres of water to the surface - water isolated from earthly life forms since before Man existed. The scientists will later remove the frozen sample for analysis in December when the next Antarctic summer comes. They have now left the site.

The scientists rebuffed claims that their drilling could have contaminated the lake, a body of water which has been in isolation for 20 million years. The Russian researchers have insisted the bore would only slightly touch the lake's surface and that a surge in pressure will send the water rushing up the shaft where it will freeze, immediately sealing out the toxic chemicals used in the process.

'It's like exploring another planet, except this one is ours,' said Columbia University glaciologist Robin Bell.

Valery Lukin, the head of Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI), which is in charge of the mission, said in Wednesday's statement that his team reached the lake's surface on Sunday. Lukin has previously compared the Lake Vostok effort to the moon race that the Soviet Union lost to the United States, telling the Russian media he was proud that Russia will be the first this time. Although far from being the world's deepest lake, the severe weather of Antarctica and the location's remoteness made the project challenging.

'There is no other place on Earth that has been in isolation for more than 20 million years,' said Lev Savatyugin, a researcher with the AARI. 'It's a meeting with the unknown.' Savatyugin said scientists hope to find primeval bacteria that could expand the human knowledge of the origins of life. 'We need to see what we have here before we send missions to ice-crusted moons, like Jupiter's moon Europa,' he said.

Lake Vostok is 160 miles long and 30 miles across at its widest point, similar in area to Lake Ontario. It lies about 2.4 miles beneath the surface and is the largest in a web of nearly 400 known subglacial lakes in Antarctica. The lake is warmed underneath by geothermal energy.

The drilling in the area began in 1989 and dragged on slowly due to funding shortages, equipment breakdowns, environmental concerns and severe cold.

While temperatures on the Vostok Station on the surface above have registered the coldest ever recorded on Earth, reaching minus 89 degrees Celsius (minus 128 degrees Fahrenheit), the water in the lake is warmed by the giant pressure of the ice crust and geothermal energy underneath.

[ Comment by Ulysses: I think it's the giant pressure that keeps water liquid at temperatures below 0 °C. The pressure doesn't keep it "warm". Even though they registered a geothermal energy source at the bottom of Lake Vostok, its overall temperature should not be much higher than that of the neighbouring ice cap. The picture below is showing the phase diagram of water.]

The Russian team reached the lake just before they had to leave at the end of the Antarctic summer season.

Scientists believe that microbial life may exist in the dark depths of the lake despite its high pressure and constant cold - conditions similar to those expected to be found under the ice crust on Mars, Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus.

'In the simplest sense, it can transform the way we think about life,' NASA's chief scientist Waleed Abdalati told the AP by email.

Scientists in other nations hope to follow up this discovery with similar projects. American and British teams are drilling to reach their own subglacial Antarctic lakes, but Bell said those lakes are smaller and younger than Vostok, which is the big scientific prize. Some scientists hope that studies of Lake Vostok and other subglacial lakes will advance knowledge of Earth's own climate and help predict its changes.

"It is an important milestone that has been completed and a major achievement for the Russians because they've been working on this for years," Professor Martin Siegert, a leading scientist with the British Antarctic Survey, which is trying to reach another Antarctic subglacial lake, Lake Ellsworth.

"The Russian team share our mission to understand subglacial lake environments and we look forward to developing collaborations with their scientists and also those from the U.S. and other nations, as we all embark on a quest to comprehend these pristine, extreme environments," he said in an email.

In the future, Russian researchers plan to explore the lake using an underwater robot equipped with video cameras that would collect water samples and sediments from the bottom of the lake, a project still awaiting the approval of the Antarctic Treaty organization.

The prospect of lakes hidden under Antarctic ice was first put forward by Russian scientist and anarchist revolutionary, Prince Pyotr Kropotkin at the end of the 19th century. Russian geographer Andrei Kapitsa pointed at the likely location of the lake and named it following Soviet Antarctic missions in the 1950s and 1960s, but it wasn't until 1994 that its existence was proven by Russian and British scientists.

Earlier this week state-run news agency in Russia claimed that an extraordinary cache of Hitler's archives may be buried in a secret Nazi ice bunker near the spot where yesterday's breakthrough was made. ‘It is thought that towards the end of the Second World War, the Nazis moved to the South Pole and started constructing a base at Lake Vostok,’ claimed RIA Novosti, the Russian state news agency. It cited Admiral Karl Doenitz in 1943 saying ‘Germany's submarine fleet is proud that it created an unassailable fortress for the Fuehrer on the other end of the world’, in Antarctica.

According to German naval archives, months after the Nazis surrendered to the Allies in April 1945, a U-530 submarine arrived at the South Pole from the Port of Kiel. The crew are rumoured to have constructed a still undiscovered ice cave ‘and supposedly stored several boxes of relics from the Third Reich, including Hitler's secret files’. A later claim was that a U-977 submarine delivered remains of Hitler and Eva Braun to Antarctica in the hope they could be cloned from their DNA. The submariners then went to Argentina to surrender, it was claimed.

[ Comment by Ulysses: As to all these stories about the Third Reich and its attempt to explore the south pole region, there seems to be some truth in it. It is true that Germany undertook many efforts to explore Antarctica since 1873 when Dallmann discovered the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Islands on behalf of the newly founded German Society of Polar Research. Regarding the historic development of German polar research during the following decades, it seems to be most probable that an assumed "Antarctic Base 211" was really established in the 1940s. As to the mysterious story of both German submarines, U-530 and U-977, that surrendered to Argentine in late 1945, there are still many open questions related to U-530 which was under the command of Otto Wermuth at that time. In his interrogation by U.S. intelligence officers he kept silent to all questions regarding his original orders and the routes he followed almost two months before reaching Argentine. After having dumped his log and other secret books he had surrendered in Mar del Plata without the slightest treacherous evidence left on board. A polar mission could therefore not be excluded. As to U-977 that left Howaldt's Yard in Hamburg on March 31, 1945, after overhaul and fitting of schnorchel, things are quite different as has been documented in another U.S. intelligence report. It could be assumed that U-977 was destined for providing the escape of high-ranking Nazis to South-America. This could be supported by a story my father told me years ago. During most of World War II he was working at Howaldt's submarine construction facility in Hamburg. It was in early 1945 and when they decided to give up the construction of new submarines that he was mobilized and sent to a military facility in Northern Germany. Having arrived at his destination, there was a new order making him return to Hamburg, as there were still some U-boats to be completed or overhauled. According to my father, these submarines were usually referred to as "escape submarines for the big shots" by the Howaldt community. U-977 must have been one of those vessels. While facing all those hair-raising stories published about Nazi presence in Antarctica in 1945 and even later, it would be wise to remember that the end of the Third Reich was in many aspects less spectacular than human imagination and wishful thinking might suggest. ]

Now back to the Daily Mail article on Lake Vostok:

Microbiologists say that the lake could offer a glimpse of unique life forms. The project has been closely watched by both NASA and the Russian Space Agency. One hope is that it will give a glimpse of conditions on Jupiter's moon Europa where water is also believed to exist under a thick ice cover.

‘The discovery of microorganisms in Lake Vostok may mean that, perhaps, the first meeting with extraterrestrial life could happen on Europa,’ said Dr Vladimir Kotlyakov, Director of the Geography Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Specialists at the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute will now test a sample of water that has been sucked from the lake, and frozen.

Last year, the expedition stopped 10 to 50 metres short of the lake after the weather closed in and the scientists were forced to abandon the expedition.

[Comment by Ulysses: Before reaching Lake Vostok in the actual drilling period, researchers already provided ice samples from the neighbouring ice cap for microbiological research. From these samples some kind of microorganisms could be extracted which nourishes hope to find some kind of life even in Lake Vostok itself. Related images can be found on another blogspot of mine.]

Academics say they have found ‘the only giant super-clean water system on the planet’. They forecast the extraordinary 5,400 cubic kilometres of pristine water will be ‘twice cleaner than double-distilled water’, and any life will have developed in total isolation.

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