Sunday, February 05, 2012

Lake Vostok.

I've been very interested in Lake Vostok for a long time. It's not in Russia as the name suggests. It is, in fact, about as far from Russia as it's possible to get because Lake Vostok is in Antarctica, in Russian territory there, and it's under roughly two miles of ice.

It's not frozen. There are two miles of ice above it but the lake itself is liquid because of geothermal heat from below. Needless to say, it's under enormous pressure.

Russian scientists have been trying to drill into it. A very risky operation considering the area it's in has recorded the lowest temperature anywhere on Earth - minus 89 Celsius. It's literally cold enough to freeze your eyeballs solid.

I won't ever visit the site. It can reach minus 20 here (although this year it's been quite mild and stayed mostly above minus 10) and that is plenty cold enough for me. Drilling through two miles of ice into a reservoir of pressurised water that could come shooting up that hole -and if it did, it would probably freeze everything it touched instantly - is a job for other people. Not for me.

It's estimated that the ice formed over that lake two million years ago, when Antarctica had just finished being a green and pleasant land and developed an ambition to be the least green and most unpleasant place on Earth. An ambition it has almost fulfilled. It just needs to get rid of the penguins and it's done.

So, could there be anything alive down there? Well, extreme cold and high pressure are not friendly conditions for life, but there are forms of life in the deep oceans where the only real difference is that they aren't isolated. It is possible.

It does depend on how the lake formed. Did it freeze entirely at first, before the mounting ice increased the pressure and forced the land down far enough to re-melt the lake? That initial freezing could have killed everything, leaving a big pool of sterile water. Not 'pure water' as the eco-folk insist, because that lake would have had mud in the bottom of it and decaying creatures before it froze. It might be sterile but it's unlikely to be pure. Humans are not the only creatures to crap in the water supply.

Then again, some bacteria survive freezing. They could have multiplied again after the lake thawed, and many species can live on very basic materials, without oxygen and without light. I'd guess anything bigger than a bacterium would have frozen to death when the lake was first covered but you never know. There's really no way to know what's down there until they get their first samples, which they are due to get any time now. Maybe they already have.

Unfortunately the scientists, who were close to reaching the lake last time they were heard from, have been silent for a week now. Did they penetrate the ice and release a fountain of supercooled water, to be locked forever in ice? Maybe their radio is simply broken. Or maybe they're just too busy to chat. I hope they're okay and are simply excited by finding something extraordinary.

Even so, it's at times like this I wish I hadn't watched a film called 'The Thing'.

--------Update 6th Feb

They're okay and they have samples. Oh, and apparently there's another of those secret Nazi bases nearby but nobody has actually seen it. Just like the ones on the moon. At the rate these invisible bases are turning up, they'll probably find one on each of those planets we have only just discovered.

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