An artist's cross-section of Lake Vostok, the largest known subglacial lake in Antarctica. Liquid water is thought to take thousands of years to pass through the lake, which is the size of North America's Lake Ontario.Nicolle Rager-Fuller / NSF
A small shrimp-like creature is spied by NASA at a depth of 600 feet beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet in late November 2009. This critter is a three-inch long Lyssianasid amphipod found beneath the Ross Ice Shelf. Scientists hope Lake Vostok will yield similar surprising life forms.AP Photo/NASA
NASA photo of Lake Vostok in Antarctica.
A first analysis of ice pulled from the largest body of water buried beneath Antarctica has yielded nothing but pristine water, untouched in tens of millions of years.
But that doesn’t mean the lake is lifeless.
Sergey Bulat of Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute in Russia presented preliminary results from a study of ice pulled from the 6,000-square-mile subglacial lake in February. He and his colleagues told the 12th European Workshop on Astrobiology that they found fewer than 10 microbes per milliliter, according to a report at Nature.
That’s equivalent to the background in their clean room, Nature said.
But the results came not from the lake water that rushed up their borehole from the lake and froze it shut again; instead the first results came from ice that froze onto the drill bit itself -- and they did find elements that likely came from the drilling oil and lubricants used to poke a hole through 13,000 feet of ice to the lake.
Bulat hopes to get clean samples from the ice frozen in the hole soon, and the lower depths of the lake itself, which scientists believe may hold microbial life that has been sealed off and isolated for as much as 20 million years.
Such unusual forms of life might give indications of what life elsewhere in the universe looks like. But Lake Vostok is an interesting spot for other reasons.
Beyond the fantastic science, Russian news agency Ria Novosti recently noted a number of rumors about the lake, including talk of a secret Nazi sub base and a rumor that the bodies of Hitler and his mistress were delivered there for cloning.
The Lake Vostok project has been years in the making, with initial drilling at the massive lake -- 6,060 square miles -- starting in 1998. The scientists were quickly able to reach 11,800 feet, but had to stop due to concerns of possible contamination of the never-before-touched lake water.
The Russian scientists came up with a clever way to make sure the water would not be contaminated: They agreed to drill until a sensor warned them of free water. At that point they took out the kerosene lubricating their drill bit and adjusted the pressure so that none of the liquids would fall into the lake, but rather lake water would rise through the hole due to pressure from below.
The Russians are not alone in such a mission: Scientists from around the world are literally racing to explore the mysteries of Antarctica. There are two other Antarctic digs underway.
A team from the British Antarctic Survey is on a competing mission, set to plumb the depths of Lake Ellsworth, one of a string of more than 370 lakes beneath Antarctica that may soon see light for the first time. And a third Antarctic expedition -- a study of the subglacial Whillans Ice Stream -- mainly features U.S. scientists.