The largest is the size of Lake Ontario, a researcher says, and
all may contain an exotic community of microbes
U.S. Water News Online
ANTARCTICA -- Buried under thousands of feet of ice in the
Antarctic are a series of freshwater lakes unexposed to the open air
for millions of years but possibly holding a thriving community of
microbes, scientists say.
Researchers probing beneath the permanent ice shield around the
South Pole have located at least 76 lakes, including one that is
about 5,400 square miles, comparable to Lake Ontario.
Lake Vostok, the largest of the polar lakes, lies beneath more
than two miles of ice and is thought to have a liquid pool with a
depth of about 3,000 feet, said John C. Priscu of Montana State
In a report to the national meeting of the American Association
for the Advancement of Science, Priscu said the thick ice has sealed
the lake's waters from the open air for perhaps 20 million years.
"This is one of the last unexplored frontiers of our planet," he
Water remains liquid in Lake Vostok because the thick ice blanket
on its surface insulates against the minus-60-degree air temperature
of the polar region and traps heat that flows up from Earth. The heat
is enough to keep the lake waters from freezing.
Priscu said the lake's waters are thought to contain an exotic
community of microbes that reached the lake through a 500,000-year
process that slowly carries ice from the surface to the waters below.
Ice samples extracted from drill holes through the frozen shield
atop the lake contain microbes that are able to survive in a dormant,
frozen state for thousands of years. The same type of one-cell
animals are thought to live in the lake, Priscu said.
A planned project will enable scientists to drill all the way to
the Lake Vostok waters and take samples. Plans call for the use of a
sterile drilling technique that will prevent contaminating the lake
with bacteria introduced from the surface. This will keep the water
and microbial specimens pristine that would be sucked up from the
ancient lake, Priscu said.
Probing Lake Vostok may help in the future search for life in
outer space. Priscu said the lake may resemble subsurface lakes
thought to exist on Mars and on Europa, a moon of Jupiter.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's long-range
plans call for sampling hidden pools of Martian water, if they exist,
and to probe beneath the frozen surface of Europa. Both are thought
to be the most likely solar system locations for microbial life
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