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Lake Vostok

Lake Vostok is a similar size to Lake Ontario, which makes it one of the larger fresh water lakes of our planet.  The surface of Lake Vostok is covered with ice nearly four kilometres thick, and it is believed that it has been isolated from the rest of the world for at least 500,000 years, and probably longer.

It was discovered by airborne ice penetrating radar in around 1970.  This lake is in the Australian Antarctic Territory below Vostok, a Russian base.  Vostok is the coldest inhabited place in the world, but Lake Vostok is insulated by its nice thick blanket of ice, and warmed by heat from the Earth.

The temperature of the lake is about minus 3 degrees C.  The pressure of the ice keeps it liquid.

The water of the lake appears to contain about fifty times the concentration of dissolved Oxygen as most surface waters.

Life in Lake Vostok

The conditions in Lake Vostok are unusual, but there seems little doubt that there are many sorts of microorganisms in it, and possibly multicellular organisms as well.  Although the liquid lake itself has not been penetrated yet, a drillhole has reached to about 100 metres above the lake, and a number of types of microorganism have been found in the ice. Many of these are similar to ones found in other places, but some are different.

 
Penetration

It is hoped to penetrate into the lake itself in either 2010 or 2011, using a special technique that allows a probe to melt its way into the lake.  All the countries involved are very conscious of the danger of contaminating this lake with surface organisms and losing this unusual opportunity of studying an ecosystem that has been isolated for at least 500,000 years.

Cosmic Importance

Apart from the importance of Lake Vostok itself, if things can survive under ice for enormous lengths of time on the Earth, the ice covered oceans and lakes of Europa, Callisto, Ganymede, and possibly Mars could also hold life. There are probably also suitable underground habitats with liquid water which could support life on Mars, Titan, and possibly Triton.


Satelite Radar picture showing the outline of Lake Vostok
By NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio.
Additional credit goes to Canadian Space Agency, RADARSAT International Inc.[see page for license],
via Wikimedia Commons
 
 
 
 Antarctica showing location of Lake Vostok
The original is a composite satellite photo from NASA.