SAN FRANCISCO--Of all the great lakes of the world, just one remains untouched by humanity. The very existence of Lake Vostok, buried as it is beneath some four kilometers (13,000 feet) of ice in one of the most remote parts of Antarctica, was unknown when Soviet explorers serendipitously built a base directly above it in 1957. Not until 1994--by which time Russian glaciologists had drilled three quarters of the way down to the lake in order to read 400,000 years of climate history recorded in the ice--did satellite and seismographic measurements reveal Vostok's impressive size, almost equal in area to Lake Ontario but up to four times as deep. Cut off from direct contact with the sun, wind and life of the surface world for as long as 14 million years, Lake Vostok seems to scientists to be a unique time capsule that, once opened, could help solve old and difficult puzzles. Some technologists consider it the best place on Earth to test probes that are designed to bore through the icy shell of Europa, a moon of Jupiter suspected of harboring a watery ocean and possibly life.
But many environmental activists disagree, and recently scientists and technologists have been stepping back from proposals they started making in 1996 to send robotic probes into the lake to analyze the water, look for microorganisms and return sediment samples. At a workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation in late 1998, several dozen researchers drew up a timeline calling for penetration of the lake in 2002 and sample returns in 2003. In late 1999 a follow-up meeting pushed the mission back to 2004 at the earliest. Now previously bullish researchers concede it may well be a decade before instruments are lowered into the lake.
This article was originally published with the title Out in the Cold.