The big mystery of Lake Vostok and whether it holds ancient microbial life will have to wait for another Antarctic winter to pass. A team of Russian researchers left their remote drilling site this week with less than 50 feet to go to break into the surface of a vast underground lake that has remain untouched for the past 15 million years.
In order to catch the last plane home, the Russians left behind a 12,300-foot borehole filled with kerosene to prevent it from freezing — as well as questions for the international scientific community about whether the project will contaminate any new life forms that may be lurking below.
"I can understand the Russians don't want to start over — it's a four-kilometer ice sheet — but this is a unique place," said Claire Christian of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based group focused on environmental issues on the Antarctic continent. "You have to use the most precaution that you can, and our main concern remains contamination."
The Russian plan to penetrate the lake has been debated since it was discovered in 1993, and the drillers have had several failed boreholes in the past decade. In 2007, a drillbit broke off and crashed to the bottom of the hole. Russian engineers pumped in anti-freeze into the hole in order to retrieve it, but they eventually abandoned the device.
The presence of anti-freeze and other chemicals in such an untouched environment worries both advocates and scientists.
A study by U.S. National Research Council predicted Lake Vostok would contain unique life forms, sediments could give clues to long-term climate of the region and isotopes would help geologists figure out how these unusual subglacial lakes are formed.
Despite the risks, the Russian plan to use fuel and other drilling fluids to keep the hole open was approved by members of the Antarctic treaty, which governs scientific projects on the frozen continent. The project was opposed by some environmental groups and scientists who argued that hot-water drilling would do less environmental damage.
British researchers are using hot-water drills to pierce nearby Lake Ellsworth and are close to reaching their goal. A joint American-Swedish-German team used hot-water drilling techniques to build a massive neutrino detector at the South Pole more than a mile and a half below the surface.
But Russians complained hot-water drilling required more power than they could generate at their remote camp, also known as Vostok.
Many scientists who study Antarctica say the project has become a point of national pride for a nation that has fallen on hard times. And of course, there's the thrill of being first.
"It's like exploring an alien planet where no one has been before. We don't know what we'll find," Valery Lukin of Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in St. Petersburg, which oversees the expedition, told Reuters this week.
Lukin has said that once the lake is breached, water pressure will shoot up the borehole and freeze the drilling fluids solid — keeping them out of the lake itself. But Christian said the Russians need to slow down.
Lake Vostok "isn't going anywhere and we would also like to see what happens at Ellsworth. It's a much smaller lake it might be good idea to see how it works first. You are going to be opening the lake up to the outside — we just not sure what will happen."
The Russian team plans to return to the drilling site in December.