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Russian Researchers Tout Historic Feat Kilometers Beneath Antarctic Ice

A view of a Russian drilling apparatus at the remote Vostok research station in Antarctica, site of the lowest temperature ever recorded (-91 degrees Celsius).
Russian scientists are celebrating an unrivaled achievement in polar exploration this week that could unlock a trove of evolutionary and biological secrets under kilometers of ice in Antarctica.

Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute says its researchers obtained a 2-meter-long "core [sample] of transparent lake ice" from the long-isolated, subglacial waters of Lake Vostok on January 10.

The sample was taken at a depth of 3,406 meters below the surface of the ice.

That and future samples will be transported via the "Academic Fyodorov" research ship and should arrive in St. Petersburg by May, when the inspection for signs of microbial life will begin in earnest.

Lake Vostok is far and away the largest of Antarctica's 145 or so subglacial lakes and one of the world's largest bodies of freshwater (it is often compared to Lake Ontario). It lies beneath around 4 kilometers of ice at a southern latitude of 78.5 degrees. More significantly, it is thought to have been essentially sealed off from the rest of the planet for at least 15 million years and perhaps as long as 25 million years.

Any such life forms would have survived isolation from sunlight or fresh air and intense cold and enormous pressure for millions of years.

One U.S. scientist once said, when the long-shot efforts to reach Lake Vostok began, that any presence of life there "would be one of the biological finds of the millennium."

The Russian scientific team's leaders were understandably euphoric this week, judging by a report from Russia's English-language state broadcaster RT in which they described the core sample:

“Initially, we saw completely unknown to us ice – an opaque, porous, bright white,” explained Vyacheslav Martianov, the deputy head of the Russian Antarctic Expedition. “But 20 meters after that we saw transparent ice, with the white ice frozen inside of it.”

This ice may have very specific physical properties that are different from ordinary ice and anything ever known before, Martianov said.

The Russians' saga as they try to tap into the lake while avoiding miscues is one of the most ambitious recent undertakings in Earth and life science. The extraction is being carried out under harsh conditions made more difficult by the need to avoid contamination that could dramatically and permanently alter what is effectively a biological time capsule. Fearing the worst, some scientists have opposed international efforts to reach the lake at all.

One of its main aims is a search for possible life in what is arguably the most extreme environment on the planet that man has ever explored -- where temperatures haven't risen above freezing for millions of years. Russia's Lake Vostok field station was described by the BBC as "the most isolated manned research outpost on Earth."

The results could hold answers to questions about the origins of life on Earth and the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe.

The first sample of water from subglacial Lake Vostok in Antarctica arrived in Russia in mid-2012, but scientists hope the new core samples produce different results.
The first sample of water from subglacial Lake Vostok in Antarctica arrived in Russia in mid-2012, but scientists hope the new core samples produce different results.
Initial findings from less reliable samples from Lake Vostok, however, were not encouraging for those hoping to find rugged bacterial or other microbial survivors, according to Science Recorder:

Preliminary research seems to suggest that the lake is lifeless. In a report published on [December 21, 2012], researcher[s] say the first samples retrieved from the underground lake do not contain any evidence of life. Scientists reportedly expected to discover signs of bacteria in two places within the subglacial lake: at the top of the lake between the ice and the water, and in the sediment at the bottom of the lake.

“A first analysis of the ice that froze onto the drillbit used in last February’s landmark drilling to a pristine Antarctic lake shows no native microbes came up with the lake water,” according to Sergey Bulat of [the] Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute (Russia). The very uppermost layer of Lake Vostok appears to be “lifeless” so far, says Bulat.

Researchers analyzed the microbes present in the ice sample, checking their genetic makeup to figure out the phylotypes. They counted fewer than 10 microbes/ml — about the same magnitude they would expect to find in the background in their clean room. Three of the four phylotypes identified matched contaminants from the drilling oil, with the fourth unknown but also most likely from the lubricant.

It's been nearly a year since Russian scientists announced they'd opened a "'small window' to the unknown world of subglacial Lake Vostok" when they used sophisticated drilling techniques to reach the surface of the lake through 3,769 meters of ice.

At the time they called it a "much-awaited event that has kept the international scientific community and many media [outlets] in this country and abroad in suspense for months."

Underscoring the Russian success, a British team above another subglacial lake abandoned its effort to reach Lake Ellsworth in late December. Their failure was ultimately blamed on an inability to fuel the drilling equipment within their tiny make-or-break window for completion during the Antarctic summer.

A member of the 57th Russian Antarctic Expedition, Igor Zhuldybin, back in St. Petersburg in May, three months after the team had successfully reached Lake Vostok.
A member of the 57th Russian Antarctic Expedition, Igor Zhuldybin, back in St. Petersburg in May, three months after the team had successfully reached Lake Vostok.
The Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute conducts basic and applied research under the auspices of the Russian Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring (RosHydroMet). It also studies the dynamics of climate change and sea-ice extent.

At a little over half a century, Russia's is a relatively brief history of Antarctic research.

The Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute traces its own roots back to 1920 and an expedition called the Northern Research and Trade Expedition. But its current name was the result of a commitment, nearly four decades later, to explore the southern pole as well.

WATCH: The Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute's slick presentation of its work:

The institute credits the "kickoff of Russia's era of Antarctic research" to the landmark International Geophysical Year in 1957-58. That 18-month event was the brainchild of a handful of Western scientists seeking to reproduce the feverish activity of the International Polar Years, first held in 1882-83, which focused global attention on increasing mankind's knowledge of the Arctic and Antarctic circles.

Coming at the height of Cold War tensions, the International Geophysical Year prompted dozens of countries to engage in research and cooperation that in many cases was unthinkable just a year earlier for both political and technical reasons.

For the Soviet Union and Russia in particular, the International Geophysical Year was a scientific watershed. It helped to forge rare scientific cooperation at a difficult juncture in the Cold War, with such exchanges between the Soviet Union and the West still widely taboo following the rule of dictator Josef Stalin and with the space race looming.

Ironically, it also contributed indirectly to the "Sputnik crisis" that ratcheted up U.S.-Soviet tensions and prodded the United States into a rededicated space program. Moscow launched the world's first satellite, "Sputnik 1," in October 1957, partly with a view to collating atmospheric and other scientific data that proved to be one of the most conspicuous achievements of the International Geophysical Year.

Now, more than a half-century later, Russians are demonstrating that they can pioneer the exploration of inner space, too.

-- Andy Heil

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