AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
After more than 20 years of drilling, Russian scientists have reached an enormous lake under the glacial ice of Antarctica. While the project has been challenged by weather, funding and equipment breakdowns, two decades isn't so long when you consider that Lake Vostok has been sealed off for millions of years. Both the U.S. and the British have similar expeditions under way, but the Russian Antarctic expedition is the first to reach its subglacial destination. To learn more about the project, we turn to Robin Bell. She's a researcher at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, and she studied subglacial lakes. Hi there, Robin.
DR. ROBIN BELL: Hi there.
CORNISH: So I hear that you actually were hanging out with folks at the British expedition today, and I'm sure they must be buzzing about the Russians making it to the lake first.
BELL: Right. Everybody at lunch was just chatting about how they'd actually gotten there and how excited they must be.
CORNISH: So, Robin, give us a sense of Lake Vostok. How big is it? How deep is it?
BELL: Lake Vostok is the biggest of all the subglacial lakes we know about. It's like the size of New Jersey, 23,000 feet deep. Even though at the top it's really cold - it's like minus 50 on average at the top - ice is like a blanket on the continent, so at the bottom there's lots of water.
CORNISH: Now, of course, as you mentioned, it's extremely cold, and at the Vostok Research Station, they've recorded the lowest temperature ever. I think it was -89 degrees Celsius. Can you talk about what the process was to drill down in these extreme conditions to reach these lakes?
BELL: The Russians have been drilling first to get the climate record that's stored in the ice sheet. And then the surprise came when they discovered that there was actually lake water underneath the ice. So first, it was a mechanical drill, kind of like a drill you'd use to drill a hole in a board in your backyard. But then the ice sheet gets very warm at the bottom, and it's hard to use a drill because it keeps on freezing in. So they had to use a thermal probe, like - kind of like putting a hot iron at the bottom to get to the last bit through.
CORNISH: And I've heard they used chemicals, anti-freeze and lubricants, to help drill the hole. And was there any concern that that would contaminate this lake, right? Because the whole point is that it's been sealed off and isolated.
BELL: Right. There have been a number of environmental reviews, but the real goal of the Russians was to pop a whole in that was kind of like a straw. So when they popped a hole in, it'd be like they were sucking on a straw, and the lake water would come rushing up, and none of the contaminants would go in.
CORNISH: Now that we've got out of the way the how, let's talk about how important this is. I mean, what is it exactly that scientists are hoping to figure out from the research they can get from this lake? Because I had to admit when I think of this scenario it reminds me of several different horror movie...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CORNISH: ...plots that I've heard, right? The scientists...
CORNISH: ...plodding out, and they dig something in the ice, and aliens come out. But what are you guys really looking for?
BELL: Well, it's even worse. A lot of those horror movies, they nip over to Vostok to catch up on some of the bad guys.
CORNISH: Oh, really?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BELL: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So it's - Vostok's right there in the middle of all the horror stories. What we're, as the science community, is hoping to find out is what kind of ecosystems can live under 2 miles of ice and how they might change having been sealed off from the sun and the wind for tens of millions of years. These ecosystems are probably like the ecosystems that are on the icy moons that spin around Saturn and Jupiter. So if we're going to look for ice - covered water on other planets, Vostok's a good analogy.
CORNISH: Does it sort of tell the story of the Earth itself, sort of like rings on a tree trunk?
BELL: There's been a lot of other evolution on our planet. And sometimes we think that when a planet's gotten cold, after it gets warm again, that's when life explodes. So this will be kind of like peering back into those parts of Earth's history where we did live in a snow bolus.
CORNISH: Is there any big scientific question that you would hope that Lake Vostok could answer?
BELL: Well, if we all worry about how stable the ice sheets are, and I hope some of the things we learned from studying the lakes will help us understand what makes the ice sheets grow, flow fast and then collapse.
CORNISH: Robin Bell, thank you for talking with us.
BELL: My pleasure.
CORNISH: That's Robin Bell, researcher at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University.
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