20 Million Years Later, Russians Work To Drill Into Lake Russian researchers in Antarctica are on the verge of piercing a hole through two miles of ice into an ancient lake, untouched by the light of day for some 20 million years. But it'll be a delicate process to break through without disturbing the pristine waters. Guest host David Green speaks with Antarctic researcher John Priscu about the process.

20 Million Years Later, Russians Work To Drill Into Lake

20 Million Years Later, Russians Work To Drill Into Lake

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Russian researchers in Antarctica are on the verge of piercing a hole through two miles of ice into an ancient lake, untouched by the light of day for some 20 million years. But it'll be a delicate process to break through without disturbing the pristine waters. Guest host David Green speaks with Antarctic researcher John Priscu about the process.


Imagine a place on earth where there's been no light, no wind for millions of years. Lake Vostok is one such place. The world's third largest lake, in terms of amount of water, has long been hidden, buried beneath two miles of ice until, perhaps, this coming week. Russian researchers are about to break through that ice.

And to tell us what they might find and what dangers they may encounter, we've brought in John Priscu. He's a researcher at Montana State University who's been tracking the progress of those Russian scientists. And he joins us from Bozeman, Montana.

Professor, welcome to the program.

PROFESSOR JOHN PRISCU: Thank you very much. It's nice to be here.

GREENE: Can you tell us, sort of give us a picture of this lake? I mean I'm imagining something as big as one of the Great Lakes, but just buried under kind of this roof of ice.

PRISCU: Yeah, you're pretty close. Let's choose Lake Ontario.


PRISCU: It's a very large lake in terms of surface area. But importantly, it's a very deep lake, 3,000 feet deep. But, as you say, it's not an easy link to sample; it's under two and half miles of ice.

GREENE: Well, why have these Russian researchers been so determined to get there?

PRISCU: Well, it's an interesting story. The Russian program started drilling in the site for ice cores, to look at paleoclimate and the record of Earth temperature record and gas record. And ice is unique; it has little bubbles of the atmosphere at the time of the snow was deposited at the surface. So, it gives you a record of the atmosphere through time. As you go down deeper into the ice, you get older in time.

But, as serendipity would have it, they got into this very interesting ice when they got over 3,000 meters deep. They lost the climate record, there were no layers in it anymore. And it turned out that the ice that they hit was from this giant lake.

GREENE: So it's sounds like they started digging to test the ice. They figure out that this is actually the liquid lake under there. And what interests scientists at that point? Is it the possibility there might be life, organisms if there's water?

PRISCU: Yes, exactly. When you look out the window of your aircraft as you fly down to Antarctica, you just see this vast expanse of ice as far as your eye can see. And it's about 70 percent of the world's fresh water is frozen there.


PRISCU: But nobody really ever thought that it was alive. But now, you know, all of a sudden there's these emerging views now that the ice sheet and the sub-glacial environment below it is teeming with life. And I've written a few, papers calling it the largest wetland in our planet is under that ice sheet.

GREENE: Well, what are the risks? I understand that a lot of gases might be built up in that lake. And I guess another question is if there's going to be some sort of explosion or a geyser once they get in there?

PRISCU: That's a good point. The lake is pressurized and the pressure in that lake should be about what we see in a Coke bottle. And you know what happens in the Coke bottle. If you shake it up and uncork the top, the Coke will come shooting out through the top. You know, you can see you can have quite a mess. So it's really important that when the lake water comes up the borehole, it doesn't come up too far, or else it will start degassing, and it could then geyser out through the surface.

GREENE: You know, it's interesting that the Russian scientists have compared this to exploring an alien planet where no one has been before. And one of the fields you study is astrobiology, I mean, life on other planets. Is this comparable to that? I mean could we find life forms that might give you some insight into organisms that live, you know, in outer space?

PRISCU: I think the astrobiological implications of the Vostok study are huge. The icy worlds in our outer solar systems have more habitable space in them than Earth does. We've never been there. We haven't sampled them. But Europa is one of my favorites. And it has this thick ice shelf and a deep ocean under it.

GREENE: Where is that?

PRISCU: Europa is one of the moons of Jupiter.

GREENE: Ah, so there are lakes like this on one of the moons of Jupiter. And so there...

PRISCU: Yeah, they're huge. There are oceans. And so, two things: Vostok and other sub-glacial lakes in Antarctica - there're more than 200 of them - allow us to do, is develop the technology to get there. Secondly, allow us to assess the life that's there. And together, these will allow us to draw hypotheses and develop instruments and experiments for exploration of these outer icy bodies in our solar system.

GREENE: Sounds like if they break through the ice this week, it could be quite an exciting moment. Do you wish you were out there? Do you wish you were out there with them?

PRISCU: I do. I wish I was out there. But I think I would be standing 100 meters away from the boreholes when they break through.

GREENE: All right. Interesting story that will be following. John Priscu is a researcher at Montana State University and he joined us from Bozeman.

Professor, thanks so much for telling us about this.

PRISCU: I thank you very much.


GREENE: And you're listening to weekend edition from NPR news.

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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. Earth Observatory/NASA hide caption

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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.