Warning: Well in Antarctica May Pop Like a Can of Coke

August 14, 2003
Knight-Ridder Tribune News

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- If Russian researchers in Antarctica succeed in drilling through the final 396 feet of nearly 2-1/2 miles of ice to reach an ancient, unexplored lake underneath, scientists at NASA warn the hole could cause an eruption that spews water thousands of feet into the air.

The American scientists speculate that the water in pristine Lake Vostok, filled with gases and pressurized under tons and tons of ice, would act like a carbonated drink in a can that's shaken and then popped open.

Their concern is that the lake water, which has not been exposed to Earth's atmosphere in as many as 15 million years, might become contaminated with microbes and chemicals from the surface. And unsuspecting researchers could get injured by an icy blast from the lake.

In an article published last month in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, Chris McKay at NASA-Ames Research Center and his colleagues issued a simple message to the Russians: Be careful.

"Imagine opening a can of Coke," McKay said. "We know from experience that you can do it carefully, no problem. But if you didn't do it carefully, there would be problems."

Lake Vostok is filled with water and dissolved gases in roughly the same ratio as a two-liter bottle of Coke, McKay estimates.

If a hole is bored through the ice into the lake, McKay worries that the puncture could send a geyser of freezing cold water flying up from miles beneath the glacial surface.

So why poke a hole in the first place?

It remains a compelling mystery what, if anything, lives in the dark depths of the nearly freezing, highly pressurized, oxygen-filled environment.

McKay has his sights set on Mars and Europa, one of Jupiter's moons. Ice has been detected on both globes, and he and other scientists speculate that liquid water exists underneath frozen caps.

And where there is liquid water, there is almost always life, Priscu said. By learning how to study such extreme environments and by confirming if life exists in such austere conditions, researchers could extrapolate that knowledge for the purposes of finding extraterrestrial life.

The Russian group, which controls the drill and operates the only research station above the lake, had planned to make the final push to complete the hole -- about 4 inches in diameter -- this year. Delays, however, have interceded.

About five years ago, the Russians had stopped drilling through the ice when they hit a patch of unusual ice crystals, a signal of the proximity of the lake. Under international pressure, the Russians suspended their drilling to evaluate the best options for entering the lake.

But the Russian team is eager to resume drilling; presumably, they would be the first humans to ever draw water from the lake.


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