Russians drill into Lake Vostok, begin search for life under Antartica’s surface

February 9, 2012

Scientists are taking the search for life in extreme environments to the ends of Earth and beyond. On Wednesday Russian scientists announced they had reached Lake Vostok, a subglacial lake under Antarctica. As AP reported:

Russian researchers reported Wednesday that they had reached Lake Vostok, a pristine body of water untouched by light or wind for about 20 million years. They want to know what type of microbial life — bacteria too small to see — might exist there.

Finding microbes may not sound like much. But they were the first form of Earth life eons before plants and animals existed.

If scientists find these tiny germs in Lake Vostok, it bolsters already strong hope that elsewhere in our solar system, life also might exist where once it didn’t seem possible.

There are plenty of examples of life forms existing in the most improbable of places:

—A tiny shrimp was captured on a NASA video floating under thick ice sheets in a different part of Antarctica.

—Tubeworms somehow get needed energy from violent hydrothermal vents in the deepest Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

—A germ called “the world’s toughest bacterium” by the Guinness Book of World Records and also termed “Conan the Bacterium” was found 55 years ago in a can of meat. It survives and even repairs itself in radiation that would be deadly to cockroaches.

Some in the scientific community expressed concern that the drilling techniques used to reach Lake Vostok could contaminate the pristine lake. As Marc Kaufman explained:

The long effort has met with controversy over some of the chemicals and techniques used in the drilling. Many have been concerned that pristine Lake Vostok — which hasn’t felt the wind for more than 20 million years and may well be home to previously unknown life forms — could be contaminated by the kerosene, Freon and other materials used in the drilling.

John Priscu of Montana State University, an Antarctica specialist who has been in periodic contact with the Russian team, said rumors are flying that the lake was indeed pierced but that no information has been formally announced.

“If they were successful, their efforts will transform the way we do science in Antarctica and provide us with an entirely new view of what exists under the vast Antarctic ice sheet,” he said in an e-mail.

Many scientists see Vostok as not only a last frontier on Earth but also a potential gold mine for learning about possible conditions on Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s moon Encedadus. Each is covered by a thick shell of ice with liquid water below, warmed by either the inner heat of the moon or by tidal forces.

The United States and Britain will begin drilling later this year into small subglacial Antarctic lakes. Scientists estimate that there are about 200 of these lakes beneath the ice sheet.

Reports emerged as the drilling effort continued that Lake Vostok had been the site of a secret Nazi base. As Elizabeth Flock reported:

When state-run Russian news agency RIA Novosti released a report Monday that said Russian scientists had drilled into the deep, dark and previously untouched Lake Vostok, a curious detail was buried farther down in the story.

Ria Novosti reported that near the end of the World War II, the Nazis moved to the South Pole and began constructing a base at Lake Vostok. The agency quotes German Grand Admiral Karl Dontiz, who apparently said in 1943: “Germany's submarine fleet is proud that it created an unassailable fortress for the Fuehrer on the other end of the world,” in Antarctica.

Is there any truth to the Russian rumors? Or is this a case of a news agency implementing Godwin’s law — the longer a discussion goes, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis approaches.

Taken another way: Why isn’t it enough to relish in the sheer awe of reaching 2.2 miles below the surface of Antarctica to explore a hidden lake?

Discovery News scoffs at the idea of a Nazi base there, calling it “Nazi paranoia” and “World War II conspiracy theories” from Moscow. The Moscow Times dismisses the idea as just “rumors.” Most news sites, including The Post, ignored Ria Novosti’s theory.

More from The Washington Post

Sheltering abundant microbial life miles below icy surface

Graphic: The subglacial Lake Vostok

SECTION: {section=national, subsection=health-science}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=national, subsection=health-science}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!