The Lost Vostok

An image of Lake Vostok, a deep subglacial lake in Antarctica.
Dreamers’ visions of a forgotten world may become a reality. Only, this world is not lost in the vast expanses of South America but on the coldest continent: Antarctica. Deep beneath the ice, a giant lake is hidden, which was isolated from the outside world for millions of years. What awaits us at its bottom?

Secrets of the Peaceful Continent

Antarctica was lucky: in 1959 in Washington, the 12 countries that had scientific missions on the continent signed an agreement to ban establishing military bases, conducting military maneuvers, and testing any kind of weapons on its territory. Since then, humans have gone there exclusively in the name of science. The results of the work of one such mission suggested that at a depth of several miles under the ice cap of Antarctica, the temperature is close to the melting point of ice. This assumption was expressed in 1957 and was the first step to a grand discovery. Another mission involved seismic soundings of ice in the area of the Soviet-operated Vostok Station (the word vostok means “east” in Russian), which was conducted by a scientific expedition led by Soviet geographer Andrey Kapitsa, son of Nobel laureate Pyotr Kapitsa. As a result, a signal was recorded, reflecting off a surface under the ice. For about 30 years, it served as evidence of the presence of a layer of frozen rock under an ice shell many miles deep. However, the reflecting plane was so smooth that even Andrey Kapitsa suggested that there must be a huge subglacial lake with a length of more than 155 mi, a width of over 30 mi, and a depth of more than half a mile!

Andrey Kapitsa's assumptions about the size and depth of Lake Vostok
Approximate size and depth of Lake Vostok

Lake Vostok cannot be called unique: in Antarctica, there are well over 400 under-ice reservoirs, though they are much smaller in size. For example, Lake Ellsworth, according to the hypothesis of British scientists, has been isolated from the outside world for more than 125,000 years and is now becoming an important object of research. Water samples from the small subglacial Lake Whillans (just a few feet below a 2,600-ft ice sheet) were collected by US polar explorers in early 2013. It turned out that the lake is inhabited by colonies of microorganisms, whose concentration is only ten times lower than in oceanic water. These bacte­ria do not get their energy from the Sun, but rather from breaking down carbohydrates.

Map of the Subglacial Lakes of Antarctica

Through the use of radar and satellites that penetrate through the icy depths, over 150 subglacial lakes have been discovered under the Antarctic ice sheet.

Map of the Subglacial Lakes of Antarctica
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An astronaut floating in space above the earth, surrounded by particles and positrons.

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