Antarctica's Lake Vostok
There are at least 150 sub glacial lakes located in Antarctica, one of the biggest and most controversial of these being Lake Vostok. Lake Vostok is located in East Antarctica under four km of ice at 77 degrees S, 105 degrees E. It is one of the largest sub glacial lakes (10,000 sq. km ) and is approximately 250 km long and 50 km wide, with depths as low as 510m. The ice overlaying Lake Vostok provides a continuous paleoclimatic record of at least 400,000 years. It is believed that never before discovered microorganisms and unique geochemical processes are likely to exist in Lake Vostok. The mystery of the unknown has fueled governments and scientists for decades to try and penetrate the lake to discover what lives inside. However, drilling into the lake may actually destroy them and contaminate one of the last untouched wonders left on earth.
Russia has been the leading force behind drilling Lake Vostok for the past three decades. They began drilling towards the lake thirty years ago but stopped in 1998 just a few hundred feet from the lake’s surface. The reason was that Russia wanted to reevaluate their equipment and technology to make sure they were not putting Lake Vostok at risk of contamination from their drill and borehole. However as the years went on Russia continued to want to finish drilling to the surface of the lake, but the project was once again delayed until 2003-2004 for Russia to prepare a Comprehensive Environmental Assessment (CEE) of the implications and mitigation measures they would take to reduce the risks of drilling. CEEs are typically supposed to be submitted before any potentially damaging activities occur so other parties can review the project to make sure that it is safe.
Russia continued drilling operations during the CEE process and by the 2007 Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) Russia had completed all steps in the CEE process under the rules of the Environmental Protocol. Though Russia improved its operations, they continue to use the same borehole, which has already been contaminated with kerosene. In early 2010 Russia made another announcement that they had only 100 meters of depth to cover until they reached the surface of the lake and it would be reached within the year or by early 2011. However, the project had to be stopped due to the weather in February of 2011.
So what’s the problem with drilling into Lake Vostok? Basically the issue is that Lake Vostok is one of the largest untouched areas remaining on Earth. By penetrating the lake without mitigating potential sources of contamination (such as the old borehole) the very thing that makes the lake unique may be destroyed by contamination of the outside world to the Lake’s waters. The lubricants and anti-freeze present in their borehole may taint the microorganisms they are trying to discover.
If we shouldn’t drill what should we do? There are plenty of other options that could have been explored before actually entering Lake Vostok. This should not be a race to the lake but a scientifically calculated and slow process that allows us to explore all opportunities and options. Russia should have held off on drilling for a couple of years until they can follow the 2007 guidelines by an international group of scientists that stress precaution and protection of subglacial lakes by using new technology for drilling (Read here for the guidelines). They could have also tested their technology on another, more isolated subglacial lake first. Lake Vostok is thought to be connected by a network of rivers and streams to other subglacial lakes, and is also the largest lake, so contamination could have serious impacts. It is not consistent with the principles of the Environmennt Protocol to risk damaging such unknown and unique environments. The plan for drilling into Lake Ellsworth, by contrast, is closely adhering to international guidelines and is using cleaner hot-water drilling technology.
So what exactly is the rush? Lake Vostok has sat untouched for millennia. Another few years to ensure the protection of the lake would not have been too long to wait.
Read ASOC’s letter of appeal to Russia here.
In early February, Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported that the researchers have reached the surface of the lake at (a depth of 3,768 meters). It remains to be seen how successful they were in keeping contaminants out of the lake and whether the lake does indeed contain unusal forms of life. The Russians already have great plans for their future exploration of Lake Vostok: to collect water samples at different depth of the lake with the use of a swimming robot. They will submit the CEE for this project at the Antarctic Treaty meeting in May.