Racing against the oncoming southern winter, Russian scientists announced today they have broken through more than 2 miles of ice to dip into a freshwater lake in eastern Antarctica that had been sealed off from the surface for millions of years. Pressurized water from the lake was allowed to rise up and fill the bore hole before freezing solid.
Next year, the scientists plan to return to sample the lake water. They are especially keen to know if microbes are currently living in one of the most extreme environments on Earth. The lake is seen as an analog for a liquid lake or ocean under the icy crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa.
In a terrific piece on the much anticipated breakthrough for the New York Times today, David Herszenhorn and James Gorman write that environmentalists are concerned about the possibility of contaminating a pristine site with so much scientific potential:
The Russian plan to prevent the drilling fluid from reaching the pristine lake water was to plug the bottom of the bore hole with an inert fluid, Freon, and to drill the final distance with a heated drill tip instead of a motorized drill. Enough kerosene would be removed to lessen the pressure in the bore hole so that when the lake was reached, lake water would flow up the bore hole, then freezing and forming an icy plug. That is exactly what happened, Russian scientists confirmed.