Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Discovering New Life in Antarctica?

   I wrote this blog last month, but I'm happy to add an update that the Russian team has succeeded in drilling through the ice in Antarctica to find the freshwater Lake Vostok, a lake thought to be the size of Lake Ontario which has been frozen over for millions of years and is now buried under miles of ice.  

  President Putin was given a small flask with some water in it from Lake Vostok, though the date on it was from December 2011, meaning that it was probably an ice core rather than water from the lake. 

   We have not heard whether there are bacteria in the water yet.  Just their existence would be enormously important.  Later it will be interesting to learn whether there are microscopic bacteria that might not have been seen in the rest of the world for millions of years.  


Life on other worlds! A time machine!  That's what I think of, at the news that scientists from Russian are seeking to drill through two miles of ice in order to gain access to Lake Vostok in Antarctica,  a freshwater lake that has been cut off from the rest of the world for millions of years.  At the same time, scientists with the British Antarctic Survey are seeking to drill carry out a similar operation over Lake Ellsworth, a somewhat smaller lake.

     Unlike the Arctic, which has a thin ice cap of only about 8 feet (and thus easy access to the water underneath), the Antarctic ice shelf rests on land--the continent of Antarctica.  The ice has built up for millions of years, and it is literally two and a half  miles  thick.  Hence drilling is no easy task, especially given the amazingly harsh conditions that researchers face.     
     As a minimum there may be new micro-organisms in the water, perhaps forms of life that evolved separately over millions and millions of year.  Also it could be that there are large creatures present to feed off those microorganisms.  To me it is terribly exciting, almost like visiting a freshwater lake on another plant (say Europa, a moon of Jupiter that we know has water oceans, covered by ice).  NASA was love to fly a probe up to Europa some day, drill through its ice cap and start taking pictures of whatever is down there. No doubt NASA will use the Lake Ellsworth experience when the time comes to visit the icy moons of Jupiter and their oceans underneath the ice.

     It's not impossible that there might be a "living fossil" or two that have survived somehow, just as certain fish have adapted to living in caves, completely shut off from sunlight.  The difference, however, is that the under-ice lakes in Antarctica have been sealed off for millions of years.  Also, cave creatures might still be fed from organisms that originate at the surface of the earth, and then drain into the cave somehow.  But what kind of food would be present underneath 2.5 miles of ice, and  could living creatures really cope with the pressure?
    Because of the harsh conditions in Antarctica, it has taken decades to reach this point.  Later this winter (or summertime in Antarctica) we may have some answers, and possibly a few surprises.  

 Probably they will find bacteria in Lake Ellsworth and Lake Vostok, but there might just be something a bit larger as well.