Lake Vostok makes waves on the Web

Claudine Zap

A team of Russian scientists says it has unearthed the prehistoric subglacial Lake Vostok, two-and-a-half miles below sea level, opening up an ancient and possibly undiscovered world of life below the surface of the earth.

Word of the possible discovery made a splash on the Web, where a wave of searches on "lake vostok" suddenly surged.

What is it?
Lake Vostok is one of 140 subglacial lakes found under the surface of Antarctica. The overlying layer of ice could be somewhere around 400,000 years old. But the lake water below could be somewhere around 20 million years old. A team of Russian researches have been drilling since January to reach the lake. But attempts to drill down have been made since the lake was discovered in 1996.

What did the Russian scientists accomplish?
The field researchers managed to drill down through approximately 2.5 miles of ice and claim they have hit the subglacial Lake Vostok, a body of water the size of Lake Ontario. John C. Priscu, an Antarctic researcher at Montana State University, says that if the Russians have actually hit the lake, it "opens the doors for ensuing subglacial science." NASA is also following the potential breakthrough, as the climate so far below the earth could offer insight into extraterrestrial life in outer space.

What do the scientists hope to find?
Antarctic researcher Priscu notes that the find could be nothing short of monumental, saying, "If they can confirm there is life in the lake, it will transform our view of Antarctica." He expects to find "unique organisms" in the lake. Mahlon C. Kennicutt II, a professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University who leads Antarctic research group, adds that the lakes beneath ice sheets "may contain sedimentary records of climate change that are found nowhere else on the planet."

In addition to the potential of science, a Russian news agency brought up an odd theory that the site of the discovery was also a secret Nazi base camp built in 1943. However, without more than mere talk of the base, the rumor will remain just that.

What is the meaning of the find?
According to National Geographic, this would be the first time anyone has penetrated a subglacial lake on the frozen continent. Kennicutt adds that looking into the past could open a window to the planet's future: "Clues to how the planet may respond to the continuing impact of humans, particularly fossil fuel emissions and related climate change, are housed in the records of past climate change in Antarctica."