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Antarctic Update: Drill Is 40 Feet From Massive 'Subglacial Lake'

While a team of Russian scientists were drilling ice core samples from their Vostok base in Antarctica, new satellite imagery revealed the outline of a lake the size of New Jersey buried two miles underneath the ice. It's thought to be the third largest lake on the planet.

hide captionWhile a team of Russian scientists were drilling ice core samples from their Vostok base in Antarctica, new satellite imagery revealed the outline of a lake the size of New Jersey buried two miles underneath the ice. It's thought to be the third largest lake on the planet.

Earth Observatory/NASA

Here's a quick update on a February 2011 Morning Edition report from NPR's Richard Harris about Russian scientists' effort to punch a hole "into a vast Antarctic lake that's buried under more than two miles of ice."

The Washington Post says the scientists report they have "stopped drilling about 40 feet from the expected waterline to measure the pressure levels deep below" and that if all goes well they'll like break into Lake Vostok "within the next week."

So we'll soon know if this project reveals some important discoveries about life and conditions below the South Pole — or we'll discover that other scientists were right to be very worried about this effort.

As Richard reported:

"One major concern is the Russians have filled the hole they're drilling with more than 14,000 gallons of kerosene and Freon to prevent it from freezing shut. The Russians have engineered their system so that when they break through into the lake, water pressure from below is supposed to push the drilling fluids up the hole, rather than letting them pour into the lake and contaminate it. ...

"Another worry is that the lake water could come rushing up the hole. John Priscu, a professor of ecology at Montana State University, says the water in the lake is gassy, and if the Russians aren't careful, the lake water would spew out like a shaken bottle of soda. 'That would be a very bad thing,' Priscu says.

"Priscu isn't expecting a disaster, but if there is one, he says it could set back plans by U.S. scientists — himself included — and British scientists, to drill into two other buried Antarctic lakes in the coming years."

The lake is about the size of the state of New Jersey.

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