An Alien World Within Our Own

Feb 8, 2012
Originally published on February 8, 2012 12:08 pm

Outer space is not the only frontier. There is also inner space, pockets of unexplored regions within our own Earth. Granted, they are becoming very scarce, at least those that are accessible by foot or by boat or by flying machine. Fortunately, there are still unexplored subsurface worlds, deep under the ocean, deep within caves, or deep under the ice. And what lurks within them may be the stuff of our wildest dreams.

A few days ago, a team of Russian scientists announced that they reached the surface of Antarctica's huge Lake Vostok, a fresh water lake buried under two-and-a-half miles of ice sheet. This is the same spot that in 1983 registered the coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth, -89 Celsius (or -129 F). I look out of my window in wintery central New Hampshire, and wonder what would it take to dig a hole that deep into the frozen ground. My well is at a mere 504 feet below ground.

The Lake Vostok operation took over two decades, on and off. From early on, there were environmental concerns related to the drilling technique the Russians chose to use, which involved injecting kerosene (some 60 tons of it altogether) and other fluids.

Lake Vostok is probably the most pristine body of water in the planet, 160 miles by 30 miles across, about the same size as Lake Ontario but with approximately three times the volume. This is an environment sealed from the outside world for an estimated 20 million years. (It is possible that deep-ice dynamics may have changed the water. But even this process would have taken over 10,000 years.)

Here is a world left to its own devices, devoid of light, continually cold, supersaturated with oxygen and other gases. This is a place like nowhere else we've been to. The water remains liquid at -3 C due to the enormous pressure the ice sheet above exerts on it, about 360 times atmospheric pressure at sea level.

It's possible that unique life forms exist in this harsh environment, or in other of the many subglacial lakes in Antarctica (there are more than 145 of them). Microbial life has been found in ancient glacial ice and permafrost including near Lake Vostok's surface. Is it part of an indigenous ecosystem that has been living in the cold, dark waters for millions of years? And if so, what kind of life is this? If life exists there, it will have to find alternative energy sources, as nutrients are lacking. However, the remarkable resiliency of life on Earth, showing up deep under dark cold oceans near volcanic vents, and even in radioactive cooling ponds, may be ready to surprise us once again. We will have to wait until next summer in Antarctica to learn more.

Lake Vostok is the closest analogue we have to the subglacial ocean of Jupiter's moon Europa, a leading candidate for finding alien life in our solar system. If any kind of life form is found in Lake Vostok (and extreme care must be taken to rule out contamination from drilling, as well as deadly pollution), we can look up at alien worlds in outer space with renewed confidence that they may also have a few surprises in store for us.

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