Drilling Team Finally Hits Antarctica's Liquid Lake

After years of trying, Russian scientists say they have drilled into an Antarctic lake that is buried beneath more than two miles of ice. They are looking for signs of life that haven't been exposed to sky in 20 million years.

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It took years to do, but Russian scientists say they've succeeded in drilling through more than two miles of ice to a lake buried deep under Antarctica. They're looking down there for what would have to be Earth's heartiest lifeforms, and whatever they find hasn't seen the light of day for perhaps 20 million years. NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Vostok is one of the most hostile places on earth. Temperatures at the Russian camp dip below minus 50, winds howl, and the ice has proven tough to penetrate with standard drills. But Valery Lukin, who runs the project from St. Petersburg, says after years of work they finally punched through into the lake a few days ago.

VALERY LUKIN: We are very happy. We are resolved of our research.

HARRIS: It was a lot of work to get this far, wasn't it?

LUKIN: Yes, it was a very long period because we begin drilling these ice holes in 1990.

HARRIS: Back then, the Soviets were drilling down to collect meticulous ice samples to study the ancient air trapped inside. It's a remarkable record of the Earth's climate over the past 400,000 years. They had no idea they were sitting on top one of the biggest lakes on Earth. But after their drill hit some bizarre ice, they realized they were nearing liquid water. Getting through the last few hundred feet of devilishly challenging ice has taken years. They're looking for life forms that would have survived in isolation there for millions of years. Lukin says they brought up a sample of lake water but it's mixed with kerosene used in the drilling process, so it's impure. Next year, though, they're going back for a clean sample. John Priscu at Montana State University expects that they will find bacteria that are adapted to living in this extraordinarily harsh environment.

JOHN PRISCU: It's dark down there. There's no light that gets through two and a half miles of ice at all in Vostok, and they haven't seen the light of day for 15 million years.

HARRIS: Previous samples of ice near the bottom of the Vostok ice core suggest that bacteria live there and get their energy from minerals in the lake instead of from sunshine. Those bacteria produce waste that feed other bacteria, and there's a remote chance that life in Lake Vostok is much more interesting. Priscu says there are hints of hot mineral vents at the bottom of the lake, similar to deep sea vents that support rich ecosystems in the dark abyss.

PRISCU: If there are such situations in the bottom of Vostok, we could have an ecosystem with larger animals, such as tube worms or, you know, crabs or blind fish or whatever.

HARRIS: A long shot for sure, but what an amazing find that would be. Richard Harris, NPR News.

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