Plumbing biology's depths


Antarctica: A desolate Russian laboratory draws new interest as more scientists seek to explore an ancient sea below the ice.

January 08, 2001|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

It is little more than a collection of shacks huddled in the snow in the midst of the vast East Antarctic Ice Sheet. And until a few years ago Vostok Station, built by Moscow at the depths of the Cold War, seemed as doomed as the Soviet Union itself.

Yet the future of that desolate spot seems assured, if not rosy. "Vostok is the most interesting point in Antarctica in this century," boasts Valery Lukin, the burly chief of Russia's antarctic programs.

Radar studies by British scientists in the 1970s suggested that Vostok stood on top of a body of water capped by Antarctica's 2-mile thick blanket of ice. But it wasn't until 1996, when a European remote sensing satellite passed over East Antarctica, that scientists discovered that Lake Vostok is an inland sea the size of Lake Ontario.

The Soviets had spent years drilling for ice cores at the station, bringing up layers of ancient ice. These cores contained pollen and gases that gave clues about the Earth's past climate. In the mid-1990s, the Russians realized that they had penetrated to within a few hundred feet of the surface of a lost world, a body of water that may have been cut off from the rest of this planet 30 million years ago, when Antarctica was first glazed with ice.

Now biologists, geologists and even NASA engineers are eagerly planning to explore the lake. "There's worldwide excitement about getting into Lake Vostok," says Dr. Karl A. Erb, director of the Office of Polar Programs of the National Science Foundation.

What most intrigues scientists is the possibility that Vostok may hold more than pristine water. Columbia University researcher Robin E. Bell says there is a 1-in-10 chance that Vostok sits in a volcanically active cleft in the Earth's crust, like the one that forms Africa's Great Rift Valley. If so, the half-mile-deep lake may contain clusters of underwater geysers spewing hot water.

Similar geysers dot the world's midocean volcanic ridges, gushing clouds of sulphide minerals, metals and water hot enough to melt lead. These geysers form weird chimney-like structures, and they feed a rare type of bacteria that thrives on chemical nutrients. The bacteria, in turn, provide food for colonies of other life forms - tube worms, clams, shrimp, sea anemones and mussels. These rare ecosystems are among the few that don't depend on the sun's energy. Scientists wonder whether Lake Vostok has its own peculiar biology, one that has evolved independently of the rest of the planet.

Plans are being laid to explore Vostok using robots capable of navigating its dark, frigid waters. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration in particular hopes to use the lake to test machines for searching for life on several of Jupiter's moons, where icy crusts cover oceans of liquid water.

For Russian scientists, Vostok is not just an exciting scientific find. It could save Russia's struggling antarctic research program from financial collapse. Lukin says he hopes to persuade the international community - in particular the United States - to spend the money needed to rehabilitate Vostok Station and help the Russians turn it into the center for exploring the lake.

But many American and European scientists are wary of using the Russian camp. The Russians halted drilling operations short of the lake's surface in 1998, after foreign scientists warned that the hole was filled with lubricants and anti-freeze that could pollute the lake.

"Using the Russians' drill hole is not an option," says Frank Carsey, a NASA scientist.

Even the surface snows of Vostok Station, some scientists say, are contaminated by years of careless waste disposal. So Western scientists have talked about inviting Russia to join in building a new international station, miles from the site.

Lukin says that won't happen. "No Russian people will work on your international station," Lukin says. Why not? "We have no interest in building new stations."

And, he says, construction of a rival station to drill to the lake will set off a race - one that Russia would inevitably win. "You must drill 3,750 meters through ice," Lukin says. "Russia must drill 130 meters."

Rita Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation, will only say that the United States is looking at a number of options for exploring the lake, including rehabilitating Vostok Station. But, she says, the United States wants to be Russia's partner, not its patron. "The chances of the United States subsidizing a Russian station are slim at best," she says.

Some U.S. scientists suggest that this country might decide to explore some of the 70 other subglacial lakes recently discovered in Antarctica, including one near the U.S. station at the South Pole. But those lakes are smaller, and therefore less interesting. "Vostok is the crown jewel," says Erb of the National Science Foundation. "If there's life in those lakes, the chances of a diversity of life is probably biggest in Vostok, because it's the biggest lake."

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