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Antarctic Odyssey

Antarctic Odyssey


Were the Russians smart, or what? While their colony in Antarctica was obviously one of superlatives, scarcely anybody envied their choice. Established in 1957 in the southeast sector of the continent, it was 1500 km from the coast and definitely the highest, driest and coldest choice possible. Here, in this interior region, the ice pack was extremely deep so that the elevation of the camp was a lofty 3500 m above sea level. Despite all that ice, the climate was very dry indeed. Some have claimed that dry cold does not feel so intense, but at -89C, (the coldest temperature ever recorded on our planet and observed at this site), such arguments mean nothing. Even a more typical -55C in this vicinity is too cold for comfort. As far as the eye could see at Vostok, as the Russians named their camp, there was nothing but bleak cold whiteness. Almost forty years would pass before the Russians discovered that Vostok offered more than desolation.

There are about fifty scientific bases in Antarctica. Among the studies currently pursued by a total of twelve nations are penguin ecology, microbiology, geology, meteorology, the search for meteorites from space, and study of the ice pack itself. As in Greenland, a number of ice cores have been drilled. Generally these are long term projects. It was in 1956, in association with the International Geophysical Year, that the first attempts were made to extract continuous ice cores from glacier ice located near the north or south poles. The difficulties have proved so overwhelming however, that only a handful of cores from depths over 1000 meters have ever been extracted.

Interest in the drilling of deep ice cores came from a desire to discover if the earth’s climate had been different in the past.. Scientists are particularly interested in the relative proportions of two forms (isotopes) of oxygen, normal oxygen sixteen and the rare isotope heavy oxygen eighteen. Each water molecule in the atmosphere contains either normal or heavy oxygen. The proportions of these isotopes in snow however vary with average global temperature since the two forms do not freeze at the same rate. Therefore if there are different oxygen isotope ratios in old ice (compared to modern ice), it may indicate that the climate was different in the past. The oldest ice layers of course are the most deeply buried. Thus as one examines lower lying layers, one in effect goes back in time.

Late in 1966, the Americans began to drill into the ice at Byrd, their inland station in southwest Antarctica. On January 29, 1968, having penetrated down 2164 m, they struck bedrock. Very unexpectedly, water flooded up the hole to a height of about 50 m. The scientists calculated that there must have been at least 1 mm of water between the ice and the rock. Had ice at the bottom melted as a result of the high pressure and weight of the overlying ice? Nobody knew.

The Soviets began to drill at Vostok in 1974. The ice pack here however was much thicker than at Byrd. Progress was very slow. By 1995 the Soviet core had reached 3100 m. This was 50 m longer than the previous record for longest ice core which had been set in Greenland. Still the Russians kept going down. By 1998 they had penetrated 3623 m. Since Vostok sits 3500 m above sea level, the core had by now extended below sea level. Suddenly a new type of ice layer was encountered. The scientists decided to proceed no further for the time being. Discoveries made in 1996 had shed new light on this location and the project directors decided to proceed cautiously.

In 1996 scientists using data from Canada’s Radarsat (satellite) as well as information from years of seismic studies, discovered liquid water lying 3710 m (12169 ft) below the ice pack at Vostok. Nobody has actually seen this lake. Rather, it is the characteristic patterns of the radar and seismic data which suggest that liquid water lies down there. Further studies suggest that the lake extends 48 by 224 km (30 x 140 miles). The lake appears to be crescent shaped, covering 14,000 square kilometres or 5000 square miles, about the size of Lake Ontario (one of the Great Lakes). At its deepest point the lake is estimated to be 960 m deep, about four times as deep as Lake Ontario. In addition, there appears to be 50 m (165 ft) of sediment at the bottom of the lake. Needless to say, this is a most remarkable discovery. Further analysis has revealed that there are at least 70 other lakes below the Antarctic ice, all of them much smaller than Lake Vostok. All are unexpected and no doubt interesting, but Lake Vostok claims by far the most attention. The first question every one wants to know is how water in liquid form came to lie under the ice. Secondly, we wonder how long the lake has existed and thirdly, if there are any living organisms in the water.

In such an extremely cold climate, the existence of so much liquid water is certainly a surprise. Even the crushing pressure, as much as 360 times atmospheric pressure at sea level, however seems inadequate to explain such a large body of water. Secular scientists variously estimate the age of the lake as anywhere from one million to thirty five or forty million years.

One group of scientists however does have a possible explanation for the Lake Vostok. Larry Vardiman of Institute for Creation Research, for example, used the standard computer model for worldwide climate simulations, to study the possible effects of a worldwide flood on the global climate. He began his study by asking the model what the effect of a uniform ocean temperature of 30C would have on world climate. (Geological upheavals during the flood may well have warmed the ocean considerably.) The computer model suggested that there would be several centuries of rapid ocean cooling accompanied by high evaporation and particularly high precipitation over the poles and Greenland. The lack of sunlight there would result in plunging temperatures leading to heavy local ice formation. Such a situation would continue until the ocean temperature had stabilized at close to the present average of 3.5C. Thus we would not expect the same heavy precipitation at the poles today. The effects of the huge dumps of snow, soon turned into deep ice packs, would however be expected to result in continued hostile climates at the poles.

Dr. Vardiman’s study was carried out before the discovery of Lake Vostok. It is possible however to consider the lake in terms of his model. Possibly as the climate near the poles plunged under intense snow storms, the surfaces of any lakes on the Antarctic continent would quickly freeze over. Soon the lakes would be deeply buried and the underlying water would be insulated against the terrible cold conditions above the ice. This might explain why the Vostok area, so dry at the present time, is nevertheless so deeply buried in ice. This scenario is highly simplified of course, but it does suggest an explanation for liquid water in an area where the climate is presently so extremely cold. Secular explanations, on the other hand, start with a climate already cold at the poles before the snow fell. Thus they have to propose a mechanism which would melt this vast amount of ice and turn it into water. This is a baffling problem when one considers the amount of heat energy needed to melt all the water in Lake Vostok.

Some secular scientists believe that Lake Vostok may contain organisms which have evolved in this unique and isolated environment. Some of them point to a deeply buried icy sea which may exist on Jupiter’s moon, Europa. These people suggest that our Antarctic lakes may resemble conditions on Europa. If there is life in Lake Vostok, might there also be life on Jupiter’s icy moon? Certain scientists would like to think so. They believe that if life could evolve in one location, it might well do so in the other location as well. Living organisms have indeed been found in the Vostok ice pack at a depth of 3590 m (11,775 ft). Unfortunately these were merely common soil microorganisms (Proteobacteria and Actinomycetes). This very ordinary finding just 150 m (500 ft) above the lake, however, has not dampened scientific hopes for something exotic in the lake itself.

Without a doubt, Lake Vostok will be much in the news in future years. The environmentalist lobby has suggested that smaller Antarctic lakes be studied before the big one. This makes sense. There is after all no immediate rush. Lake Vostok has remained hidden for at least 4500 years. It is not going to freeze up or drain in the immediate future. Meanwhile, don’t book any tourist expeditions to the shores of this lake. There still is nothing to see there except very cold people.

October 2001

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