A window to the unknown: Lake Vostok has been confirmed opened

The Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) has received official confirmation from the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI) that scientists have drilled through the ice to Lake Vostok, a lake under the Antarctic ice cap. This may yield knowledge about life that has existed in isolation for millions of years.

Ice shelf in Antarctica

Ice shelf in Dronning Maud Land, Antarctica. Photo: Helgard Anschuetz / Norwegian Polar Institute

Jack Kohler

NPI glaciologist Jack Kohler. Photo: Jan Roald / Norwegian Polar Institute

The subglacial lake is situated under the Russian base Vostok in Antarctica. Scientists working on the continent have long worried that penetrating the ice would contaminate the lake, which has been isolated from the world for 25 million years. The head of the Russian drilling team, Dr. N.I. Vasilyev, now reports that this issue has been taken care of, as the St. Petersburg State Mining Institute and the AARI developed, in 2000, “environmentally clean” drilling technology.

“This is a major event for glaciologists all over the world,” says Dr. Jack Kohler, glaciologist at the NPI. “We are now anxiously awaiting the results of the water samples which have been taken from Lake Vostok. As the lake has been isolated from the rest of the world for such a long time, it is extremely important that the lake is not contaminated. Although the Russians have been careful, there is always a risk of contamination.”

Lake Vostok was discovered in 1966. The mean temperature of the upper part of the ice sheet at Vostok station is -55 degrees C, and there have been complications along the way. On 4 February there was contact between the drill and water from the lake which was trapped in the ice at 3766 m depth. This contact with the water lens in the borehole was erroneously interpreted by some media as penetration to the lake itself, the AARI reports.

The actual breakthrough occured on 5 February at 20.25, Moscow time, by the glacial-drilling team of the 57th Russian Antarctic Expedition. During the operation, scientists pumped out drilling fluid from the borehole. Sensors registering a sharp increase in pressure at the bottom indicated that lake water had rushed into the borehole, which meant that the breakthrough had been achieved. This occured at 3769.3 m under the ice cap.

Russia celebrates its Science Day on 8 February every year.
“This achievement of the Russian polar scientists and engineers is an excellent gift for the Day of Russian Science,”, says Head of RAE, V.V. Lukin.

Contact at NPI:
Director Jan-Gunnar Winther