Deep beneath miles of Antarctic ice lies a large freshwater lake that will soon be exposed for the first time in millions of years.
Lake Vostok, which is the largest of Antarctica's subglacial lakes and also one of the largest lakes in the world, has not been touched by light for over 20 million years, according to The Washington Post.
A team of Russian scientists is poised to penetrate the lake next week and begin probing for signs of life. The harsh weather conditions on the surface of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet mean that drilling through over two miles of ice has been an arduous process spanning two decades, explained The Washington Post.
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Unfortunately for the scientists, their job won't be much easier once they drill the final 40 feet into the lake. Discover magazine explains that concerns are growing about preventing bacterial contamination of the "pristine" lake.
Even more menacing is the threat of a geyser-like explosion. The lake reportedly contains "quite a bit of gas," meaning that an explosion could occur if the pressure isn't released carefully. In fact, a large geyser could send enough water vapor to the surface to alter Antarctica's weather.
John Priscu, an antarctic researcher at Montana State University told The Washington Post, "This is a huge moment for science and exploration, breaking through to this enormous lake that we didn't even know existed until the 1990s."
Elsewhere in Antarctica, a team of British scientists is preparing to drill down to another subglacial lake later this year. British Antarctic Survey scientists staged over 70 tons of equipment above Lake Ellsworth last month in preparation for drilling in November.
But the British team isn't very concerned with beating the Russians, reports OurAmazingPlanet. The head of the British project, Martin Siegert, said, "It's not a race for penetrating a glacial lake. We're not adventurers. We're doing science. There are questions we're asking and trying to answer."
Even so, there is still a chance the Russians will not reach the lake on schedule. In January 2011, the Russian team was allegedly within 20 to 40 meters of penetrating Lake Vostok, according to Nature.
The Russian team had to quit, however, and grab the last flight off the ice before winter hit one of the most inhospitable places on Earth, reported OurAmazingPlanet.
Check out the graphic below from Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory: