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A Brief History of Antarctic Drilling

February 8, 2012

Lake Sovetskaya, first identified in 1968, marked the first discovery of a liquid water lake beneath Antarctica's vast glaciers. Eventually, the number of known subglacial Antarctic lakes ballooned to the present count of 387. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

Russian scientists have just reported that they have successfully drilled into Lake Vostok, a vast, tepid body of water that rests under kilometers of ice beneath Antarctica’s glacial surface. Most news reports make mention of the long-duration drilling effort that it took to make it down to Lake Vostok, but I’ve yet to see an account of the on-again, off-again relationship between scientists and these mysterious subglacial lakes.

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Martin Siegert about his recent book, Antarctic Subglacial Aquatic Environments for the American Geophysical Union‘s members-only newspaper, Eos. Martin is the head of the UK-led mission to drill into another Antarctic subglacial lake, Lake Ellsworth, later this year. The full interview I feel is well worth reading (though unfortunately it is behind a paywall), but at one point the interview turned to a discussion of the convoluted history of the scientific endeavour to reach beneath the ice.

Eos: Lake Sovetskaya and the larger Lake Vostok were first detected in 1968 and 1970, respectively, but the field of Antarctic subglacial aquatic research did not begin in earnest until the mid-1990s. What was the reason for this delay, and what changed to make scientists take notice?

Siegert: That’s a really good question. When we first knew about subglacial lakes, no one—not even glaciologists—seemed to care. The lakes are now a curiosity, but back then no one seemed curious about them! The geophysical data defining both Lake Sovetskaya and Lake Vostok were published in the late 1960s and mid-1970s, but then they were sort of lost to the literature—people’s research just didn’t follow them up. The first inventory of subglacial lakes, published in 1973, showed there to be 17 lakes, but it still didn’t get wider scientific traction and interest. The paper published in 1996 on Lake Vostok showed that the water was about 500 meters deep.

Now, this is only my opinion, but what I think happened is that between the 1970s and the 1990s there was a great deal of development in our understanding of life in extreme environments. I don’t think that idea was mature enough in the 1970s for microbiologists to take an interest in subglacial lakes. But in the 1990s, when the new information on the depth of Lake Vostok was announced, microbiologists began to take notice, believing that trapped within these ice-covered lakes were bacteria that hadn’t been exposed to air for millions of years, adapted to withstand the extreme conditions. So glaciologists presented information on subglacial lakes in the 1970s, and glaciologists still presented information on subglacial lakes in the 1990s. It’s just that there was a different audience available: In the 1990s the audience suddenly became not just glaciologists but microbiologists too.

Siegert shows that the assumed linear path of scientific progress, of one discovery leading to the next, is not necessarily the way science works. Sometimes, waning interests or unrelated advances take a previous curiosity and transform it overnight into the next frontier.

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