Alex Ekaykin: «Lake Vostok Is One Of the Most Mysterious Ponds Of Our Planet»

Russian Antarctic Expedition has just returned from the Vostok station, located just above the unique subglacial reservoir lake with the same name, which has many secrets and mysteries of science. We talked to one of the members of the expedition Alexei Ekaykin, glaciologist from ice drilling squad. And now we know why the study of the relict lake under the cold pole of the planet cannot be stopped.

Drilling at the Vostok station began in the seventies of the last century. Then the lake was unknown, and the main purpose was to study the ice core that would help to shed light on the climate change of our planet. Lake Vostok was only opened in 1990, as well as the drilling of borehole 5G which is deep. The first time subglacial was pond examined remotely using geophysical methods. And they came to the conclusion that it was absolutely unique!

No other water pond of the planet has such conditions as Lake Vostok does. It is under the layer of ice 3770 meter thick. The water temperature at the surface is about minus three, and in the bottom layer it is higher due to geothermal sources. Of course there is a very high pressure. However, the first two factors are not unique, and bacteria survive both at very high and at very low temperatures. Pressures on the ocean bottom is much higher. There are other reasons.

First, it's absolutely dark there, and hence there can be no life forms, which get energy from photosynthesis. Second, and this is the strangest thing, much oxygen is dissolved in the lake. Oxygen in such concentrations is poisonous for all forms of bacteria. If life will be found in the water of Lake Vostok, it will be a sensation! That is why now the main focus of research is being done on the lake biology.

It happened so that our body of water in Antarctica is the most unique. First, it is the largest: it is the fifth largest fresh water body of the planet, its square is only half the size of Lake Baikal. It contains about five cubic kilometers of water. Second, it is isolated from the whole hydrological system of Antarctica. And for 14 million years, ever since Antarctica was covered with ice, it was isolated from the outside world. Third, it is a very ancient relict lake. Its age may be more than 14 million years old as it is located in a geological crack that could have occur earlier.

Generally about 400 reservoirs like this were opened in Antarctica and all they need to be explored. Especially because most likely there are much more of them: on the map of the continent there are still many gaps. Attempts of such studies have been made. For example, the Americans were engaged in drilling. However, the pond they examined was not a lake but a part of the bay. British also tried opening the subglacial lake, hidden under a two kilometers layer of ice. However, they failed to drill the hole.

The first opening of Lake Vostok was made on February 5, 2012. Then the rise of water came out of control, and it rose to 400 meters up. Of course, we took samples, but they were not clean enough. The water rose to the bifurcation of the two holes, 5G-1 and 5D-2, and kerosene got there. Second opening took place almost three years later, in January 2015. Then the situation was kept under control, and the water rose only 70 meters higher. We managed to take samples of water, and in May they will be delivered to St. Petersburg.

Unfortunately, I do not see future prospects of these studies. The station is closed, and there will be no summer season. The reason is the reduction of the budget of the Russian Antarctic Expedition. The main costs were related to the provision of logistics, and some of the equipment was foreign and now it has become more expensive after the fall of the ruble. More recently, the federal targeted program of Antarctic research was over. A yet there's no new one.

Research in Antarctica are perceived in our country as a purely national project that, in my opinion, is wrong. It would be better to join forces: because surely there are some tasks that are better managed to solve by our foreign counterparts - for example, some laboratory studies, which we cannot carry out. Moreover, Lake Vostok and Antarctica research are of great interest for the world scientific community.

In late March we will go to the conference, which is organized by the British Royal Society. There we hope to discuss the prospects of studying the Antarctic with colleagues from the UK and the US, to share their experiences. Of course, we will discuss the above-mentioned problem of British researchers with drilling the subglacial lake.

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