Tate Williams

Under the ice, the unknown

Tate Williams February 10, 2012

Russian scientists pierced a 2.2-mile-thick shell of ice that protected an inky, alien lake untouched for millions of years this week, and briefly, the world seemed deeper, older, and more mysterious that it did the week before.

Cloudy, unconfirmed reports started trickling in Monday about a sub-glacial lake in Antarctica, and the isolated team that had been boring into it for 20 years in the coldest place on Earth (a recorded low of minus 128.6F).

It just turned 100 years since Scott and Amundsen raced to the South Pole, but even read over Twitter, wire reports about Lake Vostok smelled of whale blubber and sealskin parkas.

Not to underplay the scientific importance of the feat, it is the only time anyone has tapped one of the Great Lakes-sized bodies under the ancient ice, and we can now explore one of the least hospitable environments on the planet. But it felt different than just polar science. It felt like H.G. Wells and John Carpenter. Lovecraft. It felt like time travel.

On Wednesday, a Russian wire service confirmed a report from the Russian research institute’s website:

An event that has been keeping the world scientific community on tenterhooks for the last few months occurred on February 5 at 8.25 p.m. Moscow time…specialists with the glaciological and drilling unit of the 57th Russian Antarctic expedition through deep ice borehole 5G penetrated the relict waters of sub-glacial Vostok.

The AARI statement rejoiced with the Soviet-sounding statement, “This achievement of Russian polar researchers and engineers has been a wonderful gift for the Day of Russian science, which our country celebrates on 8 February.”

It’s like the early reports were coming over a crackly wooden radio speaker. There was a picture of the men posing for the camera on the day of the achievement that made it to the website of the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, where news of the breakthrough could be translated from Russian by Google.

Articles started filling in the gaps, and outlets were describing conditions akin to the moons of Jupiter, a discovery on par with the first space launch, and the exploration of Mars.

Some were saying it would yield life forms unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Others said it was most definitely sterile. Some reports called it 14 million years old, others 36 million. Some researchers touted their careful drilling tactics, as they pumped 60 tons of kerosene and lubricants into a five-inch-wide hole over the course of decades, then switched at the last minute to more delicate Freon. But Greenpeace Russia warned about the dangers of drilling and chemicals in an untouched environment.

“These are the last frontiers on the planet we are exploring. We really ought to be very careful,” warned University of Colorado geological sciences professor James White.

Careful is a sliding scale, but it’s done. They broke through, just barely. They knew it when there was a rapid change of pressure as water gushed into the hole miles away and instantly froze, forcing antifreeze to out to the surface. Now we see what’s down there. The Antarctic summer is ending, but next researchers plan to sample the lake, and then send robots in to explore. Americans have plans for other sub-glacial lakes.

Soon there will be chronicles to read about the Russian exploration, and what it means, and the human drama that must have surrounded it. But for now, we get a different kind of drama — the rare modern opportunity of humans being on the brink of something previously kept from us.

Something lightless, alien, and utterly unknown.

Images: NSF and AARI

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