19 October 2012

Approaching Lake Vostok - fifth update


Ever since I learned the Russians were drilling into Lake Vostok, I've had a vague sense of unease that the procedure would be screwed up and the lake would be contaminated in the process.  I am now a little more reassured after reading an account cited at Wired about the precautions being taken:
Lake Vostok, which has been sealed off from the world for 14 million years, is about to be penetrated by a Russian drill bit.

The lake, which lies four kilometres below the icy surface of Antarctica, is unique in that it's been completely isolated from the other 150 subglacial lakes on the continent for such a long time. It's also oligotropic, meaning that it's supersaturated with oxygen -- levels of the element are 50 times higher than those found in most typical freshwater lakes.

"Once the lake is reached, the water pressure will push the working body and the drilling fluid upwards in the borehole, and then freeze again." The next season, the team will bore into that frozen water to recover a sample whose contents can then be analysed.

The drill bit currently sits less than 100 metres above the lake. Once it reaches 20-30 metres, the mechanical drill bit will be replaced with a thermal lance that's equipped with a camera...

The conditions in Lake Vostok are very similar to the conditions on Europa and Enceladus, so could also strengthen the case for extraterrestrial life.
More at the link and at New Scientist.  I have a family member who studies extremophiles and will be most interested in the results of the probe, but personally I like this Reddit comment: "What's 14 million years of divergent evolution in a lightless, freezing, high oxygen environment going to look like? I don't know, but I kinda hope it eats people."

Image from the images page of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research's Subglacial Antarctic Lake Environments website (lots more information there).

Update January 28: A report at BBC indicates that "time is running out" for the Russian team because "With the Antarctic summer almost over, temperatures will soon begin to plummet; they can go as low as -80C." The drillers are within about 50m of the water, but are progressing slowly and will need to terminate operations by February 6. Details at the link.

Update February 11, 2011:  Drilling has been halted.

Update February 1, 2012:  The Washington Post now says that penetration is imminent:
If microbes are found in Vostok, the discovery would have particular significance for astrobiology, the search for life beyond Earth. That’s because Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus have deep ice crusts that scientists think cover large amounts of liquid water warmed by sources other than the sun — just like Vostok...
Because of the stakes involved, the Russian effort has drawn criticism for its extensive use of kerosene, Freon and other chemicals to enable the drilling and to keep the borehole open during the long winter...

...the lake is part of a complex system in which ice sheets bring in meltwater at their bottoms and later carry refrozen water elsewhere. She said that although the lake has not “felt the wind” in 20 million to 30 million years, the water in it is not as ancient — in the 100,000s to low millions of years old. The only ancient water present, she said, is probably in the sediment at the bottom...

Vostok, which is about the size of New Jersey, is the world’s third-largest lake by volume of water. Priscu said the gas in the lake makes it like a can of carbonated soda: Open it under high pressure, and it will spurt out.

He said the doomsday scenario for the Russian breakthrough would be if the suddenly released water pushed its way past machinery to block it and shot up the borehole, which is six to eight inches in diameter at the top. The result, he said, could be an enormous geyser that could empty a quarter of the lake. Priscu said he didn’t expect that to happen, but if it did, the sudden addition of substantial water vapor to the antarctic atmosphere could change the continent’s weather in unpredictable ways.
See also "Ice volcanoes on a moon of Saturn."


Fourth update February 2:  An anonymous reader found this headline today:

Russian scientists seeking Lake Vostok lost...

I thought it was from The Onion, but it comes from FOX News, where the story begins thusly...
A group of Russian scientists plumbing the frozen Antarctic in search of a lake buried in ice for tens of millions of years have failed to respond to increasingly anxious U.S. colleagues -- and as the days creep by, the fate of the team remains unknown.

"No word from the ice for 5 days," Dr. John Priscu professor of Ecology at Montana State University, told FoxNews.com via email...
I suppose that means the creature is loose.  Stay tuned.


Fifth update October 19, 2012: Initial microbiology results underwhelming.
A first analysis of the ice that froze onto the drillbit used in last February’s landmark drilling to a pristine Antarctic lake shows no native microbes came up with the lake water, according to Sergey Bulat of Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute (Russia). The very uppermost layer of Lake Vostok appears to be “lifeless” so far, says Bulat, but that doesn’t mean the rest of it is.

Bulat reported what he calls his team’s “very preliminary results” on Tuesday, at the 12th European Workshop on Astrobiology (ENEA 2012), in Stockholm, Sweden, at the AlbaNova University Center.

Bulat and his colleagues counted the microbes present in the ice sample and checked their genetic makeup to figure out the phylotypes. They counted fewer than 10 microbes/ml — about the same magnitude they would expect to find in the background in their clean room. And three of the four phylotypes they identified matched contaminants from the drilling oil, with the fourth unknown but also most likely from the lubricant.
They will nextbe testing "cleaner" water from deeper below the borehole (in May 2013).

44 comments:

  1. I'm actually very excited to hear about this.

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  2. And, if they don't find anything, it would be a really great place to dump nuclear waste.

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    1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  3. don't worry, we will find something living there. There is risk that a new microbe will escape that habitat, survive and kill us all. In effect, we are landing on an alien planet i guess.
    More surprising is, I believe, why until today we have not detected extraterrestrial life somewhere (or is it just not publicized).

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  4. Folks, life requires negentropy. No negentropy means no life. What's the source of negentropy for this lake? If there are indeed geothermal vents, then we do have a source of negentropy. If there's some significant chemical gradient, then we have a source of negentropy. But in the absence os such things, you can forget any chance of finding life.

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    1. I am just curious if you if we have ever found any significant body of water on this planet that is sterile yet?
      Also, aside from obvious things like magma, etc. do you know if we have found any sterile environments on the planet? Because if we were to find one here in this lake, It seems to me that that would be far more surprising than if it were to contain life.

      I mean its not like we have to bet for life to have evolved from scratch down in there, the lake was formed far after life was established on the earth.. just want to know anyone's thoughts on this...

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  5. Life requires negentropy...

    ...or DOES IT!!!???

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  6. if the water is liquid there is high chance of life

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    1. Does anyone out there know if we have ever found a sterile body of water on this planet?

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  7. sir/madam.... they stopped and And, if they don't find anything, it would be a really great place to dump nuclear waste? not really.... it would affect all water..

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  8. You're all forgetting God.

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    1. I agree. The thought or notion that this lake is "millions" of years old is ludicrous, try 6000-7000 years old at most. Scientists need to admit the theory of evolution is just that, theory with no factual basis. If there is life in this lake, it's because God put it there.

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    2. the advocates for the invisible man in the sky, speak and amaze us all...

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    3. Where did you spend your time learning? You failed to learn what a fact is. The existence of God is not fact. The "theory" of evolution is closer to what the definition of a fact is. You are probably one of those morons that believe rocks were created out of nothing overnight and that the Holocaust didn't happen. Maybe you should spend some time learning Anonymous!

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    4. A fool in his heart says there is no God..... Fools abound

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    5. "Fools abound" - and hypocrites, too!

      "But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell." - Matthew 5:22

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    6. Wow good find, Constantine. I'm going to remember that Matthew verse as a good biblical comeback. Thank you again.

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    7. Z, I had forgotten all about that quiz. Took it again after seeing your link, scored 14/15, then remembered I had posted it in 2010 -

      http://tywkiwdbi.blogspot.com/2010/09/us-religious-knowledge-survey-and-quiz.html

      Got the same score back then (missed the same question again!)

      Maybe I should repost it for the group here again. But I've got another one (re politics) to do first.

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    8. The nice thing about this is that no matter how much everyone has their silly science vs. christianity/god/religion squabbles it won't really effect the research at all. I don't even know why people bother to have these endless arguments, it never changes anybody's mind.

      The scientists are always going to think that the anti-evolution christians are crazy uneducated fundamentalists who get in the way of education and reason, and the anti-evolution christians are always going to believe that the scientists are foolish heathens who are going to burn in hell and are going to drag their children along with by teaching them about evolution in school. Yawn.

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  9. Seen a good documentary about this a while back called "The Lost World of Lake Vostok". I'm sure it can be streamed from somewhere if you look for it.

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    1. Thanks for the great suggestion. http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/the-lost-world-of-lake-vostok/. Added bonus .... found vids of the "Connections" series by james burke there as well!

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    2. No problem David. I've watched all those too. Very good series! Lots of crud documentaries listed on that website, but lots of good ones too. The Ascent of Man: A Personal View by J. Bronowski is another good series, Carl Sagans Cosmos too

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  10. I hope it eats people, too, and starts with the guy who wrote the reddit comment above. Then stops because it will be full.

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  11. contact lost with vostok drill team

    http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2012/02/02/russian-scientists-lost-in-frozen-land-lost/

    grab your tin foil hat it's 'the thing' time

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    1. Great find, anonymous person. I've added it to the post and bumped it to the top of the page. Tx.

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  12. "It's also oligotropic, meaning that it's supersaturated with oxygen -- levels of the element are 50 times higher than those found in most typical freshwater lakes."

    How do we know this if no water samples have ever been taken?

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    1. Good question. I Googled Antarctica + oligotrophic + oxygen to find this (the link goes to a slow-opening pdf -

      http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CCQQFjAA&url=http%3A%2 %2Fwww.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov%2Fpmc%2Farticles%2FPMC240055%2Fpdf%2Faem00162-0182.pdf&ei=YfQrT8jeE6iq2QWGl6n8Dg&usg=AFQjCNGQGYSgvKxI_TwxUU906cvJmNYJ8A

      Apparently they "know" this only by extrapolation from data from other Antarctic lakes.

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    2. Thank you for putting "know" in quotes. It's a working theory.

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  13. There is an announcement on the russian news website that work has been resumed. It's dated 5 hrs ago. In russian, sorry. http://eco.ria.ru/nature/20120203/555642585.html

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    1. They say they took a break for "maintenance work." Here's the last pgh:

      "Seasonal work of the 57th Russian Antarctic Expedition (RAE) to drill the ice above Lake Vostok began January 2, 2012. All of this season will end on February 5, after the contact of the drilling rig from the water column of the lake and a set of special operations. Then the experts will return to drill only in December 2012 to obtain samples of fresh frozen waters of the lake, past the hole, and to investigate them."

      Thanks, Kira.

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  14. Has there ever been the notion of using materials that are more natural or simpler in there composition (i.e. not made in a refinery or chemical plant) to conduct science in such a delicate ecosystem. From what is published, it appears the use of toxic chemicals and methods have been the only things that Russian scientists there have thought to use. I think some new ideas need to make it down south!!!

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    1. of course, I agree with what you are saying, but I just want to correct a couple of misconceptions:

      1. just because something is made in a chemical plant does not necessarily mean it is harmful, and just because something is naturally derived or simple in composition does not mean it is harmless. for example, an invasive species brought in by accident could potentially harm the ecosystem much more than chemicals.

      2. just because we want there to be a better way to do this research does not mean that such a way exists, and even if it exists it may not be available to these scientists to use.

      Ultimately I doubt these scientists went out of there way to choose environmentally questionable methods in their work, I have a feeling that the only way to conduct this research in a truly responsible manner would be to wait a few more decades for the technology and funding to be there to support the project.

      but wether we like it or not, they are doing it. I simply hope we can successfully learn something from this without anything terrible happening.

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  15. Aw man. I got all excited that the Nazis who transported there at the end of WW2 had gotten them! ;-)

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  16. I think The Onion is more accurate and has better sources than FOX News, Stan.
    I trust them more than I would ever trust FOX.

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  17. They're not lost. They know exactly what they're doing. Its the people who have grown impatient due to a lack of response from the team who calling them lost.

    They might be conducting their research now or perhaps their equipment got caught up with the water and froze.

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  18. Time for 5th update!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16907998

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    1. The latest news is rather underwhelming. Apparently there won't be any analysis of the water or its contents until next season. sigh...

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  19. I am very interested in what they find in lake vostok, however I feel there is a big hole missing in the entire discussion.

    Everyone is saying how amazing it would be if we find life there, and I agree that that would be amazing. But to be honest, I think it would be far more shocking to not find any life there.

    Think about it: almost everything we know about life, especially microbial life, is that it pretty much exists everywhere on the planet. With the exception of things like the mantle and core of the earth, lava flows, etc.. we have found that life pretty much exists everywhere, and once it gets there it doesn't really leave. We have found life pretty much almost everywhere we didn't expect to -- even the most damaged and decimated ecosystems are far from sterile. .. And we have even also found ecosystems that don't rely on the sun for their energy system.. .

    That said, while this lake is really old, it is certainly much younger than life on earth, so all the water that would have gone into the creating of it would have been full of countless varieties of life.

    So what I am saying is that wouldn't it be the most shocking if we just didn't find anything at all down there?

    Anyway, unfortunately I think one of the biggest problems is that with all the fundamental difficulties and challenges with trying to peer into this lake, I think we are probably not going to see any conclusive answers as to what was down there any time soon.

    To sum up what I am saying, I think that a sterile lake vostok would be the most shocking result we could find, is anyone else out there thinking similarly?

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  20. Time for a 5th update.. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar/08/scientists-bacterial-life-antarctic-lake

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    1. Not so fast...

      "Late last week, a Russian news outlet reported that scientists at Antarctica's Lake Vostok, buried under miles of ice, said they had found bacteria that appeared to be new to science. Now, the head of that lab has said the signature is actually just contamination, leading outside researchers to say that the Russian team rushed too quickly to announce the possibility of new bacterial life."

      http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=new-antarctica-bacteria-now-said-to-only-be-contaminant

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