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The new cold war: US leads race to find life under Antarctica

  • wissard traverse.jpg

    The WISSARD tractor traverse begins its journey to subglacial Lake Whillans. (Peyton Adkins / USAP)

  • wissard operation drill.jpg

    Dec., 2012: The drill set up at the WISSARD test site near McMurdo Station. The crane lifts the load transfer case that holds the scientific instruments in place over the borehole. The platform and equipment arrived at the subglacial Lake Whillans field site this week. (Brent Christner / USAP)

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    The locations of the three subglacial lakes. (British Antarctic Survey and Peter Rejcek)

  • WISSARD antarctic lakes.jpg

    An artist's representation of the aquatic system scientists believe is buried beneath the Antarctic ice sheet. (Zina Deretsky / NSF)

  • us compared to antarctica.jpg

    Antarctica is BIG. The United States is 400 square miles, while Antarctica is over 500 square miles, a full 25 percent larger than the U.S. (NASA)

Russia, the United States and Great Britain are facing off -- and this cold war is set in the coldest place on Earth.

A trio of teams from the three countries have spent years planning, drilling and digging in a race to reach one of a handful of freshwater lakes buried up to a mile and a half beneath Antarctica’s trillion tons of ice, spring-fed lakes warmed by the Earth below and sheathed by thick ice above. The studies hope to find new life forms in the pitch dark, freezing water that has never seen sunlight.

The Russian team had a breakthrough last year, pulling the first water sample from Lake Vostok a 6,000-square-mile subglacial lake that has been sealed off for millions of years. But it was contaminated with kerosene, a byproduct of the drilling process, explained John Priscu of Montana State University, who heads the U.S. project.

“We’re going to actually bring back volumes of ‘unexpressed’ lake water,” Priscu told FoxNews.com, referring to water that has not “expressed” or ejected any signs of life.

Russia is redrilling its hole to avoid contamination, while a British project that aimed to retrieve water samples from buried Lake Ellsworth was called off around Christmas after the team ran into technical trouble. The U.S. project at Lake Whillans is a clear favorite to win this new cold war.

“It’s a crazy time right now,” Priscu said in a phone call from McMurdo Base in Antarctica.

Fifty or so scientists, researchers, explorers and engineers met him at icy McMurdo at the end of December. About 25 of them completed a 611-mile flight across the bitter terrain this week, leaving the relative comforts of the base for temporary tents at a drilling station above Whillans -- above because the lake lies under approximately 1.2 miles of ice. On Friday, Jan. 18, they plan to begin boring a hole through the ice to the lake, potentially shedding light on life never before seen.

'It’s like exploring another planet. We don’t know the fundamentals, like whether there is any dissolved oxygen in the lake water.'

- Biogeochemist Jeff Severinghaus, a WISSARD scientist

“About a week ago, the U.S. made a historic traverse: We took 13 tractors and 15 people and pulled our entire field camp about 800 miles to the site. And that’s never been done,” Priscu told FoxNews.com. An LC-30 Hercules plane brought construction and drilling crews to the site two days, battling the elements all the way.

“They encountered some pretty heavy snow,” Priscu said. “That airplane sank right in, and had a difficult time getting off and burned a lot of fuel ... they had to make a stop at the South Pole to get some gas.

“The weather gods have not been cooperating this week,” he added.

In December, his team transported a custom hot-water drill to the site, as well as a specially designed unmanned micro-submarine that will be lowered down to Lake Whillans through the world’s most preposterous straw: an 11.8-inch, 2,624-foot-long tube.

“This ecosystem has been sealed for millions of years, and they don’t want to cause any damage to that,” explained Tanya Reinhardt with the College of Agriculture at Montana State University. Explorers from nine different institutions, including seven from Priscu's Montana State, are working on the WISSARD project, short for Whillans ice stream subglacial access research drilling.

“There is no sunlight down there that can penetrate through the ice. It’s a dark environment, and pure,” Reinhardt told FoxNews.com.

The Ultimate Ice Drill

A team of engineers and technicians spent nearly two years building a hot-water drill capable of melting through 2,500 feet of ice in just days. It blasts a pressurized hot water jet at up to fifty gallons a minute, a rate equivalent to eight hundred 8 ounce glasses per minute. 

The drill will remove cells and particles larger than eight one millionths of an inch, and kill any remaining cells with a powerful dose of germicidal UV radiation. All drill parts and scientific tools entering the borehole are pre-cleaned with hydrogen peroxide and, finally, go through a microbe-killing chamber.

The WISSARD drill, along with fuel, field laboratories, workshops, computerized control centers, and scientific instrumentation arrived at the Lake January 12.

Ironically, in one of the coldest locations on Earth, a “hot” spell this week left planes mired in mud and put a temporary halt on travel. But it is summer, after all, and it’s still cold by normal standards. Temperatures hovered between 15 and 25 degrees Fahrenheit this week. When winter strikes, they plunge to -100 Fahrenheit and below.

The Russian site, Lake Vostok, boasts the coldest temperatures on Earth, at -128.6 Fahrenheit.

Nearby Lake Whillans is far smaller than Vostok (though likely just as chilly). The estimated total volume is 0.5 cubic kilometers, and the water is completely flushed by underwater streams every 10 years or so. That’s a marked contrast to the estimated residence times in Lake Ellsworth (750 years) and Lake Vostok (10,000 years).

The Russian scientists found nothing but pristine water in their sample, meaning the U.S. WISSARD team may be the first to uncover the microbial life they suspect hides under the frozen wasteland -- life that may offer clues to what forms extraterrestrial creatures may take on Saturn, Mars or elsewhere in the universe.

“It’s like exploring another planet,” said biogeochemist Jeff Severinghaus, a WISSARD scientist who is working with biologists to discover how life obtains energy in the dark and cold extremes of a subglacial lake. “We don’t know the fundamentals, like whether there is any dissolved oxygen in the lake water.”

Lake Whillans was only discovered in 2007, with the aid of a NASA satellite that studies the characteristics of the ice sheet, measuring thickness, composition, and so on. Along with it, they found a network of under-ice plumbing to rival anything on the planet, a system of lakes, rivers and streams that never see sunlight.

Beyond the quest for alien life, the research team aims to study the ice shelf and its plumbing, how it interacts with water movements, and our how our ever-changing climate may be affected should the planet continue warming.

"Monday the plan is to start moving scientists and gear out there," Priscu said. "If all goes well, a day of set up, the drill hole should be very close to completed and set to penetrate the lake. They’ll wait to penetrate until we get there," on Monday.

The weather still poses a problem, and the advent of winter imposes a deadline as hard and cold as concrete. But the team doesn’t need much time to win this cold war, Priscu told FoxNews.com.

“We only need one day. The British plan was one day,” he said. “If we get one day we should be able to produce transformative science.”

Jeremy A. Kaplan is Science and Technology editor at FoxNews.com, where he heads up coverage of gadgets, the online world, space travel, nature, the environment, and more. Prior to joining Fox, he was executive editor of PC Magazine, co-host of the Fastest Geek competition, and a founding editor of GoodCleanTech.