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Lake Vostok, Antarctica

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January 2013 Update: The Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute announced that the Russian team reached lake water ice on January 10, 2013, successfully extracting a clean water sample from the lake. The scientific community eagerly awaits analysis of the reportedly untainted core sample, in hopes that this 2-million-year-old lake will provide insights into Earth's earliest life forms.

Where in the world is Lake Vostok? One of the world's largest lakes is virtually unknown. Not only because it is never visited but because it was only discovered in 1996. Lake Vostok, estimated to be the approximate size of Lake Ontario, is still being explored from a distance. This huge natural marvel is located beneath over 2 miles of ice and was discovered because ice core samples being collected by Russian scientists suddenly began to come up with abnormalities in the form of very clear, very smooth ice. The Russian bores had reached the upper reaches of Lake Vostok.

Antarctica is the coldest and windiest spot on earth. The lowest temperature ever recorded was in Antarctica: -129.3F (-89.6C). Average winter temperatures range from -40 to -94F (-40 to -67.8C). Winds are often up to 200 miles per hour. Most people are amazed to find that a lake of liquid fresh water lies beneath the Antarctic ice. In fact, 145 such lakes have so far been discovered. The lakes remain liquid only because the water is pressurized by the immense weight of the ice above, lowering the freeze temperature to 30 degrees. Residual heat from the earth's core adds the few precious degrees needed to keep the water from freezing. That in itself is not the most amazing thing about Lake Vostok, however. It appears that Lake Vostok has been isolated from the atmosphere and any possibility of contamination for up to two million years! This opens the possibility of scientific exploration in an environment uncontaminated by any event in recent global history.

Science has long suspected the possibility of under-ice lakes in the Antarctic; NASA space photos have shown abnormalities in specific areas since at least the 1970s, leading researchers to believe under-ice water was possible. In the case of Lake Vostok, ice core borings under the Russian Vostok Research Station reached the top, frozen layer of lake ice in 1996 and stopped boring until scientists could determine the best way to proceed without possible contamination of the pristine water. Through the use of radio-echo soundings and sonar, the unseen Lake Vostok shows one area to be 1640 feet deep. Estimates of the size of Lake Vostok give a possible depth of up to 3000 feet deep and 30 miles wide by 140 miles long.

Because the water itself has yet to be reached, speculation suggests that research may eventually find some forms of life existing in the pitch-dark, highly oxygenated lake. Upper ice layer cores have shown several forms of unusual organisms that apparently came from the lake itself and were frozen by contact with the ice cover. Researchers are excitedly speculating that the conditions within Lake Vostok may closely resemble those of the frozen below-surface lakes indicated on Jupiter's moon, Europa. They hope further research into Lake Vostok and the other newly-discovered lakes may give valuable information into conditions under which life may exist in space.

The discovery of such Antarctic lakes is growing yearly, with experts estimating there may be a total of up to 500 such lakes deep under the ice. It is speculated that many of these lakes may be interconnected with their own hydrologic system between them. Because these are freshwater lakes, they were obviously formed while the continent of Antarctica was still a temperate landmass. In the distant past, Antarctica was a part of a major land mass called Gowanaland that broke up to form the separate continents by way of continental drift. Over millions of years, Antarctica drifted farther south, becoming first a tropical continent, then experiencing a temperate climate. Australia, one of its nearest neighbors, broke away to remain a warmer continent. Plate tectonics and the earth's magnetic field eventually pushed Antarctica to what is known as the south pole. Ice began to form and eventually encompassed the entire continent. Fossilized plant remains from two to five million years ago suggest that this ice cap expanded and receded several times over the millennia. A few dry valleys west of McMurdo Sound lose snow to evaporation each year, leaving high, rocky valleys in which rivers occasionally run for short distances. This area also contains salty lakes with a salinity higher than that of the Dead Sea. The mummified bodies of seals have been found here, hundreds of miles from the oceans. Much is known of Antarctica's past, and much, much more remains a mystery. Lake Vostok is part of that mystery.

The rewards of scientific exploration of Lake Vostok are many: the opportunity to examine the water itself, locked away from the atmosphere for over two million years, is expected to give much information about atmospheric changes in the past. The sediments below the lake may be a treasure trove of fossils, ancient bacteria and rudimentary life forms. The single-cell organisms expected to be found in the water itself will yield much information about life forms that exist without sunlight or nutrient sources except for chemicals in the water. The exploration itself is being approached with extreme caution to prevent external contaminants from entering the water, with specialized exploration tools being developed. As Lake Vostok is located in the sector of Antarctica that is claimed by Russia, it is expected that they will take the lead in such endeavors. For their part, Russia is anxious to bridge the last few feet left in boring to explore the waters. Other countries involved in Antarctic research are expressing the need for caution.

In spite of the lack of dry land, tourism to Antarctica has grown every year since 1966. More than half of the visitors have arrived from the United States, but tourists the world over see an Antarctic Tour as the ultimate adventure. There are a number of tour and cruise operations that explore Antarctica, either alone or as part of a cruise package. No tours currently approach the interior research station where Lake Vostok is located. Many tours concentrate on the wildlife viewing opportunities in the oceans around Antarctica. The entire coastal area is an international whale sanctuary and many varieties can be seen here. Six species of seals, 35 kinds of seabirds and 17 species of penguins inhabit the shores and the coastal waters. Tours usually concentrate on the Antarctic Peninsula, jutting from the mainland toward Argentina 1000 miles away. The peninsula extends out of the Antarctic circle and is more temperate, with better viewing opportunities for wildlife and even some vegetation. Islands surrounding the mainland are also very productive areas for viewing native and visiting wildlife.

Most tours spend the majority of the visit on-board ship, with short visits to land. Even so, there are concerns that the budding tourism industry will disturb the region's delicate ecology. Tourism bureaus warn that prospective tourists make sure they are utilizing a recognized tour operator due to the danger inherent in such a trip: rescue is very difficult in the distant waters and every contingency must be planned for to keep passengers safe. Small tour operators have in the past failed to take the necessary, often redundant rescue and safety precautions to ensure a safe trip, causing tourists to be rescued only with great difficulty.

Lake Vostok is certainly one of the remarkable lakes of the world. Visiting it is currently nearly impossible, unless one is part of a Russian research crew. Instead, research a trip to Antarctica and make sure you are prepared with all the necessary cold-weather gear you will need and have selected the perfect tour operator. Make friends with a penguin, visit a whale. It's the trip of a lifetime!


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