Scientific exploration will require interagency and international

Liquid lakes buried thousands of meters below the Antarctic ice sheet
are likely the home to unique habitats and creatures that thrive in
them. Exploration of those lakes will therefore require extreme care
and an international cooperative effort, according to a team of authors
writing in the Dec. 6 issue of Nature.

The pressure exerted by the continent-wide ice sheet together with heat
generated by the Earth from below and the enormous insulating properties
of the overlying ice sheet, may mean that liquid water exists in many —
if not all — of the lakes. That may mean that they harbor life,
according to a team of authors, led by Martin Siegert of Bristol

Microbiologists funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), working
with ice samples gathered from deep beneath Russia’s Vostok Station —
that is thought to be refrozen water from Lake Vostok itself — have
argued that microbes may survive in extreme cold and darkness under more
than 4,000 meters of ice. John Priscu of Montana State University, one
of those NSF-funded biologists, is a co-author of the paper.

Antarctica is home to more than 70 lakes that lie thousands of meters
under the ice sheet. The lakes include one under the South Pole
and another, Lake Vostok, deep in the Antarctic interior, that is
comparable in size and depth to one of the North American Great Lakes.

Given the conditions in the lakes, the authors state, it is reasonable
to believe “that subglacial lakes house a variety of microorganisms
potentially unique to subglacial Antarctica and, if they are isolated
hydrologically, unique to each lake.”

In the Nature article, Priscu and his colleagues also argue that the
sediments at the bottom of Lake Vostok, and in other lakes, may also
sustain life.

They caution, though, that developing both the technology and the
experimental protocols to explore those lakes without contaminating
the waters or harming any microbial communities that may exist
there will be an extremely complex undertaking that will require
“significant multinational cooperation.”

The United States Antarctic Program, which is managed by NSF and which
coordinates almost all U.S. research in Antarctica, already has taken
some non-invasive steps to explore Lake Vostok. During the 2000-2001
research season, researchers from the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory
at Columbia University conducted detailed airborne radar mapping of
the lake to more thoroughly understand its physical and geographical

In 1999, two NSF-funded teams, one headed by Priscu and another headed
by David Karl of the University of Hawaii, published papers in Science
describing evidence that viable microbes lived in the “accreted,” or
melted and refrozen ice from Lake Vostok.

Priscu and his co-authors write in the Nature article that these
investigations into the nature of Lake Vostok “have helped to define
the next generation of research objectives, and it is likely that
several exciting bio-geochemical-physical systems will be documented
during the next decade.”

Recognizing the scientific and technological challenges and
opportunities of such an undertaking, NSF’s Office of Polar Programs
has established an NSF committee to study the possible scientific
exploration of the lakes.

Karl Erb, who heads the U.S. Antarctic Program, cautioned committee
members that future workshops to discuss whether and how to proceed
with scientific exploration will need to explore how advanced
technologies, including technologies that may as yet not be developed,
can enable scientists to achieve their research goals. He noted that
the workshops will “bring out the likely interplay between science
goals and technology requirements: The goals should define the
requirements but the state of the technology may proscribe the goals.”

He also adds that any scientific exploration of subglacial lakes,
including Lake Vostok, should include international and interagency


Read about the Vostok research conducted by Priscu and by Karl at:

Read a report on an NSF-funded 1998 workshop, “Lake Vostok: A Curiosity
or a Focus for Interdisciplinary Study?” at:

NSF’s Office of Polar Programs has established a committee to study the
possible scientific exploration of subglacial Antarctic lakes. Read the
committee’s charge at:

The international Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research maintains
a site on the exploration of subglacial lakes at:

Editors: For available photography and b-roll, call Dena Headlee,
(703) 292-8070/