MOSCOW: Russian scientists said Thursday a probe to a pristine lake deep under the ice of Antarctica could bring revelations on the planet's evolution and possibly even new life forms.
A Russian team drilled down to the surface of Lake Vostok, which is believed to have been covered by ice for millions of years, in a breakthrough officially announced Wednesday by the Institute of the Arctic and Antarctic.
Scientists said that water samples to be taken from the lake later this year could reveal new forms of life, despite the extreme conditions.
“We expect to find life there like nothing on Earth”, Sergei Bulat, a molecular biologist at the Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute, told AFP.
“If there is life there, it will be a form of life that is unknown to science. In that case we are talking about a fundamental discovery, a new page in our scientific understanding of life.””We have discovered a new subject for science, no one has ever seen anything like this,” added Vladimir Syvorotkin, a geology and mineralogy specialist at Moscow State University.
“Biologists will probably find some unknown bacteria that has adapted to such conditions,” he told AFP.
The lake's sediment will also reveal changes to the Earth and its climate over the last 20 million years, said German Leichenkov of the Institute of Geology and Mineral Resources of the Ocean in Saint Petersburg.
“For geologists, it is important to drill down and bring back the bottom sediments. They contain information about changes to the natural environment, the climate in the last 15 to 20 million years,” he told AFP.
“We have very little information on this in the Antarctic and this could be a unique source of information.”Working in extreme conditions in eastern Antarctica, where the average temperature is around minus 50 degrees Celsius (minus 58 Fahrenheit), the expedition drove a probe through the ice over many months, using kerosene as antifreeze. “This is our technical victory. Drilling in such complex climatic conditions is difficult, plus the factors of high altitude and the strong ice,”said Leichenkov.
“It's an important technical and pyschological victory. It's important to congratulate them with this, especially as there are no other victories. These people are heroes,” said Syvorotkin of Moscow State University.
Expedition leader Valery Lukin on Wednesday proudly compared the success of the long-running project to the first flight to space.
In a sign of the importance the Russian government attaches to the discovery, the minister of natural resources and ecology, Yury Trutnev, visited the site earlier this month.
The scientists behind the expedition have said the probe would not contaminate the waters due to the technical knowhow that used water pressure to push the less dense drilling fluid out of the top of the borehole.
Nevertheless a Greenpeace expert warned of a risk of pollution from drilling, citing international scientists.
“Many scientists say that they have doubts and that drilling fluid could get into this unique lake with unknown flora and fauna. This is a risk,” said Vladimir Chuprov, head of Greenpeace Russia's energy team.
Professor Martin Siegert, head of the school of geosciences at the University of Edinburgh, told AFP earlier this week that the method of drilling using antifreeze suggested potential for contamination.
“It's very difficult for them to convince (others) that their experiment is going to be clean, when you have essentially two miles (3.5 kilometres) of kerosene to cross before you get to the lake surface.”The complex task of reaching the bottom of the lake will also require a safe drilling method, said geologist Leichenkov.
“This problem is already being solved, we have very good specialists working on it.”