Should we not leave the final Antarctic frontier alone?

Lake Vostok has yet to gain popularity as a travel destination. Blame it on the truly intolerable average temperatures -80°C or on the savage polar winds, or even on the fact that most of us have never heard of it, Lake Vostok remains possibly one of the only unexplored places on earth.

Secrets of the Ice Ages

In fact, it was only in 1993, after decades’ worth of seismic studies, radar surveys and satellite imaging, that a team of Russian and British scientists confirmed the existence of this 30 million year old lake. Sitting under a 4000 metre layer of icy Antarctic surface, Lake Vostok has proven to be almost impenetrable until last week, when a team of Russian scientists obtained the first sample of water from the depths of the  evasive lake.

South Pole Marker Move

Scientists are ecstatic – they rarely get their hands in microbes that have been in evolutionary isolation. The pristine waters of Lake Vostok harbour extreme organisms unchanged since prehistory that could very well parallel some of those thought to exist in other parts of our solar system,  A truly unique test tube of life from a primordial era.

Lake Vostok

Lake Vostok, © M. Studinger, 2001

So, what´s the problem?

Namely, contamination of the most pristine water on earth as a result of the application of Russian anti-freezing substances used to prevent the bore hole from refreezing during the drilling process.

The United States National Research Council takes the position that it can be and should be assumed that microbial life exists in Lake Vostok and that after such a long period of isolation, any life forms in the lake require strict protection. But Russian scientists wanted to reach the lake at all costs and started employing Freon and kerosene in their initial drilling techniques to lubricate the borehole and prevent it from collapsing and freezing over.  Approximately 54 tones of these chemicals have already been used on the ice above Lake Vostok.

No one seems to be able to convince Russia to stop drilling until such time when cleaner technologies like hot-water drilling are available. Though the Russians claim to have improved their operations, they continue to use the same borehole, which has already been contaminated. Environmentalist groups argue that this manner of drilling endangers Lake Vostok itself and also other sub-glacial lakes in Antarctica believed to be inter-linked with Lake Vostok.

On the 14th of April 2008, the Antarctic Southern and Ocean Coalition, a global coalition of environmental NGOs, wrote the following petition to the Russian authorities:

In this International Polar Year 2007-08, where so much important research is being done that will help humankind understand the risks posed by human-induced climate change to the whole earth, ASOC urges Russia, through the Duma, to re-consider its present plan to penetrate sub-glacial Lake Vostok. It would be far preferable to join with other countries to penetrate a smaller and more isolated lake, before re-examining whether penetration of Lake Vostok is environmentally defensible. If we are wise, the Lake
will be allowed to reveal its secrets in due course.

Granted – scientific advancement needs to be supported and encouraged as much as possible, but should we not learn to be patient and respect what´s been hidden from us for millions of years? Should we not learn our place in this planet once and for all and stop subjectting the environment to our whims constantly?

My impressions, you might differ…

If you want to find out more or donate, visit the Antarctic Southern and Ocean Coalition and for more details on Lake Vostok, this is an extremely informative video:

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