After Two Decades of Drilling, They’ll Reach Lake Vostok

by brian lam

How did they know it was there?

After drilling for two decades through more than two miles of antarctic ice, Russian scientists are on the verge of entering a vast, dark lake that hasn’t been touched by light for more than 20 million years.

Scientists are enormously excited about what life-forms might be found there but are equally worried about contaminating the lake with drilling fluids and bacteria, and the potentially explosive “de-gassing” of a body of water that has especially high concentrationsof oxygen and nitrogen.

Vostok, which is about the size of New Jersey, is the world’s third-largest lake by volume of water. Priscu said the gas in the lake makes it like a can of carbonated soda: Open it under high pressure, and it will spurt out.

He said the doomsday scenario for the Russian breakthrough would be if the suddenly released water pushed its way past machinery to block it and shot up the borehole, which is six to eight inches in diameter at the top. The result, he said, could be an enormous geyser that could empty a quarter of the lake. Priscu said he didn’t expect that to happen, but if it did, the sudden addition of substantial water vapor to the antarctic atmosphere could change the continent’s weather in unpredictable ways.

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