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Lake Vostok, Antarctica's Largest Subglacial Body Of Water, Reportedly Drilled By Russians

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Nicolle Rager-Fuller/NSF
Nicolle Rager-Fuller/NSF

After over 20 years of drilling through two miles of glacial ice, Russian scientists have reportedly penetrated the surface of Antarctica's largest subglacial lake.

Lake Vostok, which hasn't been touched by light in millions of years, has been a target of scientific exploration because of the unique lifeforms it may contain.

According to Wired, the lake likely contains 50 times the amount of oxygen found in a typical freshwater lake. The conditions in the lake "are thought to be similar" to Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's Enceladus.

The Washington Post reports that a state-run Russian news agency made the announcement Monday, saying the scientists "stopped drilling at the depth of 3,768 meters [12,362 feet] and reached the surface of the subglacial lake."

Even though the scientists have drilled into the lake, it will be another year before Lake Vostok's water can be sampled. The scientists are only able to retrieve ice samples from their borehole and they must wait for the upcoming Antarctic winter to pass, according to OurAmazingPlanet.

Despite the excitement surrounding the Russians' accomplishment, the project is not without environmental fears. The Washington Post explained that concerns exist that Lake Vostok "could be contaminated by the kerosene, Freon and other materials being used in the drilling."

Discover reported that with "quite a bit of gas" in the lake, there were also fears that a "catastrophic" geyser could erupt when Lake Vostok was penetrated.

John Priscu, an Antarctic specialist at Montana State University, told The Washington Post, "If they were successful, their efforts will transform the way we do science in Antarctica and provide us with an entirely new view of what exists under the vast Antarctic ice sheet."

Image courtesy of the National Science Foundation. Click here to see a larger version.

UPDATE: 3 p.m. -- Nature reported Tuesday that Russian scientists are still working to confirm that they have in fact reached the lake. The Russian Antarctic program's director, Valery Lukin, told Nature that their data may be processed as soon as Wednesday. He said, "We want to be sure we have really reached the surface of Lake Vostok."

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