State of the Planet

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At the Bottom of the Bottom of the World

By Samuel Barnes

As we in North America emerge from a remarkably mild winter, the brief and sunny summer in the world’s deep south is drawing to a rapid close. Antarctica’s days are becoming shorter, and come the vernal equinox the South Pole will enter into its yearly hibernation—six months of dusk and night. A team of Russian scientists, building upon research conducted by Dr. Robin Bell and others at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, have spent these bright months bearing the chill in pursuit of access to a realm deep down under the soaring, scathing surface of the glacier.

A satellite image of Vostok, a subglacial body of water larger than Lake Ontario. (Wikimedia Commons)

Miles beneath the ice pack, a great body of water has been hidden from the sun and sky for twenty million years, well below freezing but nonetheless liquid, and home to an ecosystem as ancient and isolate as any other elsewhere on the planet. Lake Vostok, larger than Lake Ontario and located beneath what is known as the Southern Pole of Cold (the hemisphere’s coldest point), nearly 600 miles from the nearest seacoast.  Despite the brutal conditions, Russian researchers have for the last fifteen years been boring through the more than two-mile thick ice at the station in hopes of entering the pristine and profound environment of the ancient, liquid lake.

Last month, at last, the team bored through the deepest ice and gained access to a body of water and the life therein that has been solitary for incomprehensible ages. When the water of Lake Vostok was last at the surface, life on Earth was radically different than it is today: Miocene—the geologic era spanning from 23 to 5 million years ago—landscapes were populated by unfamiliar oreodonts (small creatures somewhere between porcine and canine) gomphotheres (tuskless elephants), and aphelops (North American rhinoceri). Kelp was just beginning to inhabit and enhance the world’s oceans. And the Antarctic ground was taiga. The epochs elapsed since then have seen radical shifts in climate, biology, and geology all across the earth, with perhaps the most dramatic shift initiated in the last half millennia. As homo sapiens sapiens emerged from vast nature and engineered a global civilization—commencing what paleontologists call the Homogenocene—hardly any of the world’s landscapes have been left untouched.

Lake Vostok's liquid water is nearly 12,000 feet beneath the surface of the Antarctic glacier. (Creative Commons)

The scientist’s success is an ecological analogue to the radical shifts in perspective made accessible by deep-space telescopes like the Hubble: they have opened a portal into a time vastly removed from our own, and have the opportunity to trace a course from there to here in a way that had previously been impossible. Though work had to be suspended before any samples could be drawn up due to the impending deep freeze and darkness of the polar winter, when scientists return in the spring they will gather matter and data from a world far more remote than the planets which appear as points of light in the night sky, millions of miles away. Columbia researchers from LDEO were instrumental in the discovery, mapping, and analysis of the lake’s hydrology and history (including this animation of the water’s origins and present status).”Conditions in subglacial lakes in Antarctica are the closest we can get to those where scientists expect to find extraterrestrial life,” said Valery Lukin, director of the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute. “For me, the discovery of this lake is comparable with the first flight into space by technological complexity, by importance, by uniqueness.”

The world of breathless experts and inspired amateurs will have to wait until next year to get the news of what mysterious realm actually lies beneath the miles of ice, but these mere months are trifling when working from a geologic timescale. Slowly but surely, the Earth and the material cosmos are revealing their secrets to the passionately inquisitive human mind of the Homogenocene. As we bore through eons and light-years of stasis and space, a new kind of dynamism—deeper than the present historical moment, broader even than the furthest reaches the known universe—is springing up from the past’s icy profundity.

Source: Astrobiology Magazine

Samuel Barnes is an intern at the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation.

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