Does Life Exist in Antarctic Lake Buried Under Miles of Ice?

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Lake Sample

Punching the through 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) of ice covering Lake Vostok to sample the lake water should resolve that scientific dispute.

The international scientific community is eager to do so, but nations disagree on how to proceed. U.S. and European scientists favor cautious approaches and are searching for funding.

Martin Siegert, a glaciologist in the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, heads a proposal to sample waters from Lake Ellsworth, a smaller subglacial lake in the western Antarctic, before venturing into Lake Vostok.

Siegert said that developing the appropriate Lake Vostok exploration program will cost several tens of millions of dollars (U.S.). By contrast, Lake Ellsworth, which is smaller and the ice above it warmer, can be sampled for about four million dollars (U.S.), she said.

"We can go into this lake, undertake an analysis of the water, and prove once and for all whether the water and sediments are truly the fascinating environment we think they are," Siegert said. "Once done, we can upscale the next mission, eventually going to Vostok."

U.S. scientists also have several plans to systematically explore the subglacial Antarctic lakes. Priscu noted, however, that securing funds for these programs has proved difficult.

Meanwhile, a team of Russian scientists recently announced plans to drill into Lake Vostok in the Antarctic 2006-2007 summer season.

"I applaud the Russian program for moving ahead with bold plans, but I would have rather seen it be an international effort with stronger environmental, education, and science programs, all of which are in the spirit of Antarctic research," Priscu said.

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