The Lost World of Lake Vostok

A breath-taking film from the BBC Horizon series about a vast hidden lake under the Antarctic ice sheet.

My apologies for putting very little effort into today’s Post.  It’s because Jean and I will be in Phoenix for much of Tuesday (I’m writing this on Monday, 7th!) and it felt easier on me to drop this in for your elucidation than try and write something in a scrabble on Tuesday evenning.

Jean and I watched this last week-end and, …. well just watch it!

It sometimes seems as if our planet has no secrets left – but deep beneath the great Antarctic ice sheet scientists have made an astonishing discovery. They’ve found one of the largest lakes in the world. It’s very existence defies belief. Scientists are desperate to get into the lake because its extreme environment may be home to unique flora and fauna, never seen before, and NASA are excited by what it could teach us about extraterrestrial life. But 4 kilometers of ice stand between the lake and the surface, and breaking this seal without contaminating the most pristine body of water on the planet is possibly one of the greatest challenges science faces in the 21st century.

In 1957 the Russians established a remote base in Antarctica – the Vostok station. It soon became a byword for hardship – dependent on an epic annual 1000km tractor journey from the coast for its supplies. The coldest temperature ever found on Earth (-89°C) was recorded here on the 21st July 1983. It’s an unlikely setting for a lake of liquid water. But in the 1970’s a British team used airborne radar to see beneath the ice, mapping the mountainous land buried by the Antarctic ice sheet. Flying near the Vostok base their radar trace suddenly went flat. They guessed that the flat trace could only be from water. It was the first evidence that the ice could be hiding a great secret.

But 20 years passed before their suspicions were confirmed, when satellites finally revealed that there was an enormous lake under the Vostok base. It is one of the largest lakes in the world – at 10,000 square km it’s about the extent of Lake Ontario, but about twice as deep (500m in places). The theory was that it could only exist because the ice acts like a giant insulating blanket, trapping enough of the earth’s heat to melt the very bottom of the ice sheet.

6 thoughts on “The Lost World of Lake Vostok

    1. It was clearly far too early in the morning for me to be trying to be clever (or funny), as the simple answer is that it does both (and the computers enable you to ignore multiple echoes)… The more complicated answer is that the entire field of geophysical exploration for oil (etc) would not be possible were it not for the fact that electro-magnetic radiation and/or pressure waves of all kind will be reflected from any and all interfaces in the sub-surface.

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  1. I am feeling very silly now. I had heard about the project to drill into the sub-glacial lake; and I had heard about the liquid water inside Europa (due to gravitational forces continually squeezing it like an over-used anti-stress ball)… but had never connected the two.

    With the benefit of hindsight, regarding Lake Vostok as analogous to the water inside Europa seems obvious; and explains the recent announcement of plans to send probes to both of them. Furthermore, the key to there being any likelihood of success in finding life in either place is this concept of chemosynthesis – which is the reason life exists near hydrothermal vents (so-called “black smokers”) at the bottoms of our oceans (curiously not mentioned in the programme)… but again, I had failed to think laterally and make the connection – it is all very exciting.

    I think it is amazing good fortune that the Russians did not find out the lake was there by drilling into it!

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    1. Having now watched it, I think some of the images featured – albeit briefly – in the programme.

      Thanks for posting this. I keep forgetting to watch the programmes when broadcast.

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      1. Shouldn’t really promote this … but there are many excellent episodes from the BBC Horizon series on YouTube. Found the series over the years to be consistently excellent. P.

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