February 26, 2012

Cornell Professors Say Antarctic Drilling May Uncover New Species

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Cornell professors say the recent completion of an Antarctic drilling project could lead to the discovery of new species.On Feb. 5, Russian scientists confirmed that they successfully drilled through more than two miles of ice in East Antarctica to the subglacial Lake Vostok, completing a project that has spanned nearly two decades.Organisms living in the lake could give scientists a rare look into what life looked like eons ago and what life may look like in similar environments elsewhere in the solar system, according to Prof. Jonathan Lunine, astronomy.“This could be an analog for the modern day Martian crust, where we know the surface of Mars is too cold and too dry to support life, but as you go deeper into the crust of Mars … there’s evidence for ice and maybe liquid water below a certain depth,” Lunine said.Lunine said that the intense conditions at Lake Vostok are similar to those found some places in outer space — even in the farthest reaches of the solar system.“Several of the icy moons of the outer solar system also seem to have liquid water oceans underneath an icy crust,” Lunine said. “Europa around Jupiter in particular has an icy crust and we have very good evidence that there is an ocean underneath that.”The 57th Russian Antarctic expedition, based at the Vostok Station about 800 miles East of the South Pole, reached the surface of the lake beneath 12,366 feet of ice, Lunine said. Russian scientists estimate that the water in the lake has been blocked from reaching the surface of the Earth by ice for 15 to 30 million years.In the ice layers above the surface of Lake Vostok, the Russian team has already detected traces of microbes, according to Prof. Philip Nicholson, astronomy. This suggests that life exists beneath the lake’s surface as well, Nicholson said.“I don’t want to put money on it, but I think you’re guaranteed to find at least some organism in some really rare abundance down there, even if there’s one cell per 10 liters of water there will still be life down there,” said Prof. Ian Hewson, microbiology. “Life finds a way to survive in the most extreme conditions.”Roughly the size of Lake Ontario and averaging a depth of more than 1,000 feet, Lake Vostok is the largest and deepest of the 300 subglacial lakes that have been discovered in Antarctica, according to the professors.Russian scientists will analyze water in the lake for traces of life in the high-pressure, sunless environment. According to Lunine, the Russian team cannot gather samples until weather conditions permit, or after the Antarctic winter is over.The coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth, negative 128.6 degrees Fahrenheit, was taken at Vostok Station in 1983, The New York Times reported. Despite the intense cold, the waters of Lake Vostok remain liquid because the ice sheet above applies pressure to the surface and traps heat coming from the Earth’s interior.Scientists expect any sub-aquatic life they find to be mostly “extremophiles” — microorganisms that can live in conditions typically unsuitable for life. However, it is possible that the organisms could be unlike anything previously discovered, Hewson said.“We’re expecting that what we’ll see down there is probably brand new types of life, new species, probably new genera of bacteria and other types of microorganisms, and possibly other types of larger multi-cellular organisms as well,” he said.Teams of American and British scientists have discussed similar projects to drill into other sub-glacial lakes on the continent, according to Reuters. The British Antarctic Survey is scheduled to begin drilling to Lake Ellsworth in West Antarctica at the end of this year. An American expedition has already begun sending supplies, including a specialized drill, to the site of another lake in the area, Reuters reported. Both groups intend to use methods to reduce the risk for contamination, such as drilling with hot water to melt the ice.Early in the drilling process, the Russian team faced an international outcry when it began using kerosene to prevent the hole being drilled from refreezing, according to Hewson, who said the use of kerosene could have contaminated the lake waters and the life that existed there. To prevent contamination, the Russian expedition is now using the high pressure on the lake to push water up through the borehole. When this water freezes, it will seal out contaminants, according to Hewson.According to Nicholson, however, the drill used by the Russian expedition at Lake Vostok produced an ice core that will also be analyzed. The layers in this core can be used to determine ancient atmospheric conditions, likely dating back about 400,000 years, he said.“Scientifically, this is a very valuable thing to do because the ice and snow gradually accumulate year by year on the Antarctic, so the deeper you go, the older you’re looking,” Nicholson said. “By using a microscope, you can actually discern the layers and count them, a bit like counting tree rings.”Nicholson added that gas bubbles trapped in the ice will allow scientists to study shifts in the Earth’s climate over a very long period of time.“One of the by-products of this is that they have a 400,000 year history of some parameters of the Earth’s climate,” he said.

Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of the headline for this article incorrectly reported that the drilling project is in the Arctic. In fact, as the story reports, the project is taking place in Antarctica.

Original Author: Lauren Avery