Scientists Drill Into A Lost World

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In one of the most inhospitable places on the Earth, Russian scientists have broken through to what's essentially another world. It took decades of drilling, but Britain's Channel 4 News explains, to scientists it was worth the wait.

"To Antarctic scientists, Lake Vostok, deep beneath this Russian outpost, is almost mythical. ... For at least 14 million years it's been covered by more than three and a half kilometers of ice."

That's 14 million years -- without contact with the rest of the world. Scientists are split over whether life could survive such an extreme environment. But NPR explains, if there is life to be found there it will be unlike anything else on the planet.

"If life exists there, it will have to find alternative energy sources, as nutrients are lacking. However, the remarkable resiliency of life on Earth, showing up deep under dark cold oceans near volcanic vents, and even in radioactive cooling ponds, may be ready to surprise us once again."

For a little context, scientists believe humans split from apes around five million years ago, so Lake Vostok has been isolated since long before there were humans. But critics say in the Russians' haste, they could be poisoning the lake they want to study.

The Christian Science Monitor explains.

"Their ice-coring drill ... uses what is essentially jet fuel to keep the long borehole from freezing over season after season, and there are fears that the fuel will contaminate the lake, or at least the lake water samples retained for research."

The Russians counter their fuel is less dense then water, so it was pushed back up the borehole as the high-pressure lake water surged up. Ice has already plugged up the hole, hopefully keeping the lake uncontaminated until scientists can take samples later this year.

Science and sci-fi fans are already having fun guessing what they'll find. Writers from Slate weigh in:

"That's great and everything, but didn't we learn anything about disturbing the secrets of the Antarctic continent from movies like 'The Thing' and 'Alien vs Predator?'"

And a writer for Time takes the joke even further.

"If life were a Michael Bay movie, the moment ... would immediately be followed by the sudden and frightening appearance of unfrozen aliens, or the Predator, or the Decepticons, or giant prehistoric piranhas..."

The sci-fi link might not be too far off the mark. The scientists believe life in Lake Vostok would give them clues to how life may develop in space — including Jupiter's frozen moons right here in our solar system.

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