After more than two decades of drilling in Antarctica, Russian scientists have confirmed that they reached the surface of a gigantic freshwater lake hidden under miles of ice for some 20 million years.
The scientists returned 40 litres of water to the surface -- water isolated from earthly life forms since before Man existed.
The scientists will later remove the frozen sample for analysis in December when the next Antarctic summer comes. They have now left the site.
The scientists rebuffed claims that their drilling could have contaminated the lake, a body of water which has been in isolation for 20 million years.
The Russian researchers have insisted the bore would only slightly touch the lake's surface and that a surge in pressure will send the water rushing up the shaft where it will freeze, immediately sealing out the toxic chemicals.
Lukin said about 50 cubic feet of kerosene and freon poured up to the surface from the boreshaft, proof that the lake water streamed up from beneath, froze, and blocked the hole.
'It's like exploring another planet, except this one is ours,' said Columbia University glaciologist Robin Bell
Valery Lukin, the head of Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI), which is in charge of the mission, said in a statement that his team reached the lake's surface on Sunday.
Lukin has previously compared the Lake Vostok effort to the moon race that the Soviet Union lost to the United States, telling the Russian media he was proud that Russia will be the first this time. Although far from being the world's deepest lake, the severe weather of Antarctica and the location's remoteness made the project challenging.
'There is no other place on Earth that has been in isolation for more than 20 million years,' said Lev Savatyugin, a researcher with the AARI. 'It's a meeting with the unknown.'
'We need to see what we have here before we send missions to ice-crusted moons, like Jupiter's moon Europa,' he said.
Lake Vostok is 160 miles long and 30 miles across at its widest point, similar in area to Lake Ontario. It lies about 2.4 miles beneath the surface and is the largest in a web of nearly 400 known subglacial lakes in Antarctica. The lake is warmed underneath by geothermal energy.
The drilling in the area began in 1989 and dragged on slowly due to funding shortages, equipment breakdowns, environmental concerns and severe cold.
While temperatures on the Vostok Station on the surface above have registered the coldest ever recorded on Earth, reaching minus 89 degrees Celsius (minus 128 degrees Fahrenheit), the water in the lake is warmed by the giant pressure of the ice crust and geothermal energy underneath.
The Russian team reached the lake just before they had to leave at the end of the Antarctic summer season.
Scientists believe that microbial life may exist in the dark depths of the lake despite its high pressure and constant cold -- conditions similar to those expected to be found under the ice crust on Mars, Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's move Enceladus.
'In the simplest sense, it can transform the way we think about life,' NASA's chief scientist Waleed Abdalati told the AP by email.
Scientists in other nations hope to follow up this discovery with similar projects. American and British teams are drilling to reach their own subglacial Antarctic lakes, but Bell said those lakes are smaller and younger than Vostok, which is the big scientific prize.
Some scientists hope that studies of Lake Vostok and other subglacial lakes will advance knowledge of Earth's own climate and help predict its changes. "It is an important milestone that has been completed and a major achievement for the Russians because they've been working on this for years," Professor Martin Siegert, a leading scientist with the British Antarctic Survey, which is trying to reach another Antarctic subglacial lake, Lake Ellsworth.
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"The Russian team share our mission to understand subglacial lake environments and we look forward to developing collaborations with their scientists and also those from the U.S. and other nations, as we all embark on a quest to comprehend these pristine, extreme environments," he said in an email.
In the future, Russian researchers plan to explore the lake using an underwater robot equipped with video cameras that would collect water samples and sediments from the bottom of the lake, a project still awaiting the approval of the Antarctic Treaty organization.
The prospect of lakes hidden under Antarctic ice was first put forward by Russian scientist and anarchist revolutionary, Prince Pyotr Kropotkin at the end of the 19th century. Russian geographer Andrei Kapitsa pointed at the likely location of the lake and named it following Soviet Antarctic missions in the 1950s and 1960s, but it wasn't until 1994 that its existence was proven by Russian and British scientists.
Earlier this week state-run news agency in Russia claimed that an extraordinary cache of Hitler's archives may be buried in a secret Nazi ice bunker near the spot where yesterday's breakthrough was made.
'It is thought that towards the end of the Second World War, the Nazis moved to the South Pole and started constructing a base at Lake Vostok,' claimed RIA Novosti, the Russian state news agency.
It cited Admiral Karl Dontiz in 1943 saying 'Germany's submarine fleet is proud that it created an unassailable fortress for the Fuehrer on the other end of the world', in Antarctica.
According to German naval archives, months after the Nazis surrendered to the Allies in April 1945, a U-530 submarine arrived at the South Pole from the Port of Kiel.
The crew are rumoured to have constructed a still undiscovered ice cave 'and supposedly stored several boxes of relics from the Third Reich, including Hitler's secret files'.
A later claim was that a U-977 submarine delivered remains of Hitler and Eva Braun to Antarctica in the hope they could be cloned from their DNA. The submariners then went to Argentina to surrender, it was claimed.
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