By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN and JAMES GORMAN
Published: February 8, 2012
MOSCOW — In the coldest spot on the earth’s coldest continent, Russian scientists have reached a freshwater lake the size of Lake Ontario after spending a decade drilling through more than two miles of solid ice, the scientists said Wednesday.
A man stood near a drilling apparatus at the Vostock research camp in Antarctica
on Jan. 13, 2006.
A statement by the chief of the Vostok Research Station, A. M. Yelagin, released by the director of the Russian Antarctic Expedition, Valery Lukin, said the drill made contact with the lake water at a depth of 12,366 feet. As planned, lake water under pressure rushed up the bore hole 100 to 130 feet pushing drilling fluid up and away from the pristine water, Mr. Yelagin said, and forming a frozen plug that will prevent contamination. Next Antarctic season, the scientists will return to take samples of the water.
The first hint of contact with the lake was on Saturday, but it was not until Sunday that pressure sensors showed that the drill had fully entered the lake. Lake Vostok, named after the Russian research station above it, is the largest of more than 280 lakes under the miles-thick ice that covers most of the Antarctic continent, and the first one to have a drill bit break through to liquid water from the ice that has kept it sealed off from light and air for somewhere between 15 million and 34 million years.
There have been much-disputed hints that life might still exist there. If so, that would give a great boost to hopes of finding life in similar conditions in icy water on one of the moons of Jupiter.
Dr. Lukin said it was a momentous, pioneering moment. “For me, the discovery of this lake is comparable with the first flight into space,” he told the Interfax news agency. “By technological complexity, by importance, by uniqueness. After reaching the water, the research team gathered by the drilling site for a photograph.
John Priscu, a geologist specializing in Antarctica at Montana State University, who has kept in contact with scientists in Antarctica and in Russia as the drilling has progressed, said that the anticipation had grown in the past two weeks as the drilling team finally came close to the lake surface just as the Antarctic summer was ending and the weather worsening.
“It has been a suspenseful two weeks for me,” Dr. Priscu said. He is headed for Antarctica next season to drill to another buried lake, and he said he was delighted with the Russian achievement. “I applaud them,” he said. “I think they have done a great job.” Russian officials said the timing of the announcement was fitting because on Wednesday, Russia celebrated “Science Day,” commemorating the occasion in 1724 when Peter the Great signed an order establishing the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. And the drilling saga, like the expeditions of early explorers, has been years in the making and involves both scientific inquiry and national pride. In the early 1990s, an international team of researchers were drilling at the Vostok research station to obtain cores to study clues to past climate in ice that has been accumulating for millions of years. At a depth of more than two miles they reached a kind of ice different from the ice sheet and realized they had frozen lake water.
That a lake existed there was not a surprise, although its size and shape were not then known. What did raise scientific eyebrows was evidence that the lake ice contained microbes, said Robin Bell, of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, who has studied the lake extensively. But Dr. Bell said a consensus had never been reached on whether the evidence resulted from contamination from the drilling fluid.
Dr. Bell, who studies the behavior of ice sheets, designed surveys of the lake conducted in 2000 and 2001, using radar and other techniques, which showed its shape and location. Because it is such an unusual environment, there is always the possibility that it will provide other geological insights, she said, adding, “We could learn something absolutely unique.”
The drilling project has been Russian, not international. And the difficulties of drilling through more than two miles of ice and keeping the roughly five-inch bore hole from freezing over have been extraordinary. The bore hole has had to be filled with kerosene to keep it from freezing over, and the researchers have had to work in what are difficult conditions, to say the least.
Dr. Priscu said the drillers, led by Dr. Lukin, had been racing against time to complete the project before the Antarctic summer ended and flights became impossible. Temperatures have dropped to lower than minus 45 already, and at minus 50 the difficulties for aircraft become extreme.
Nowhere does it get colder than at Vostok, in the middle of the East Antarctic ice sheet about 800 miles from the South Pole. The coldest documented temperature on earth was recorded at Vostok in July 1983, minus 128.6. Some environmentalists have raised objections to drilling to subglacial lakes because of the possibility of contamination. 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.
The need to prevent even the slightest contamination of the lake is acute. Its environment is comparable to conditions on the moons of Jupiter, which are among the candidates for extraterrestrial life. If life exists in Vostok, it may well exist on Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, which has subsurface icy water. The water in Vostok stays liquid because of the pressure and the warmth of the earth below it.
Next season American and British expeditions will try to drill to other buried lakes, Dr. Priscu said. He is part of the American expedition that has targeted a lake in West Antarctica.
The specially designed drill that the American team will use, Dr. Priscu said, is being sent down to Antarctica by ship, and that journey has already begun. “The drill,” he said, “is on its way to the ice.”
David M. Herszenhorn reported from Moscow, and James Gorman from New York.
A version of this article appeared in print on February 9, 2012, on page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: Lake Trapped Under Ice Is Reached in Antarctica.