A New Frontier

August 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

In February 2012, a team of Russian scientists from the Russian Antarctic Expedition managed to break the surface of Lake Vostok, Antarctica’s largest subglacial lake. This was a groundbreaking moment in polar research, as its is the first time in history that a subglacial lake has been accessible to humans.  The Russians had been at work on the project for over twenty years, so the magnitude of this feet becomes even more apparent, especially considering that the lake is almost 4000 meters below the ice sheet, and temperatures are extremely low (Lake Vostok is located in an area literally known as the Pole of Cold, and the lowest ever naturally occurring recorded temperature was measured there).

The drilling into Lake Vostok is of significance is because it is such an isolated area of the world – the lake has been covered under Antarctic ice for about 25 million years – it is probable that as-yet-unknown endemic organisms, mostly microbes such as bacteria and archaea, could exist in Lake Vostok’s unique environment. Therefore, since the discovery of Lake Vostok, the drive to explore the unknown and expose the mysteries of the lake has led humans to drill 3,766 meters into the Antarctic ice shelf over more than two decades, and finally, reach their goal. However, since what lies in Lake Vostok is truly a mystery, it is certainly possible that humans may not like what they find there. In a “be careful what you wish for” scenario, any extant species discovered may actually be hazardous to humans. A controversy over Lake Vostok has been contamination;  if organisms living in Lake Vostok were somehow brought into contact with human cells, they could potentially evolve to become parasitic and infect our body. In that case, what we might find in Lake Vostok might not be what has been there for millennia, but what we recently created because of our very presence. A science fiction story written about Lake Vostok might encompass these issues, and ultimately address whether humans’ curiosity and desire to understand their world better gives them the right to venture into and disturb pristine envrionments such as Lake Vostok and the possible repercussions of doing so, both for the environment and humans themselves.

More about Lake Vostok: http://www.asoc.org/issues-and-advocacy/antarctic-environmental-protection/lake-vostok


-pacopal (Rahul Pathak)

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