In Antarctica the scientific community "practises” seeking life on other planets and making predictions about climate change.
Ségolène Royal, Ambassador for Arctic and Antarctic Affairs of France, visited St. Petersburg in March. She discussed the prospects for cooperation between the two countries in fighting global warming. According to the Ambassador, the key to success may lie in the study of ice samples obtained while drilling an ultra-deep well at Vostok station in Antarctica.
Why drill in Antarctica
Many scientists from various parts of the world consider the research on the sixth continent as one of the most interesting and complicated tasks facing modern science. All because of unique lakes completely isolated from the earth's atmosphere for millions of years lying many kilometers deep under the icecap of Antarctica.
Do any forms of life dwell inside and, if so, how do they evolve? These questions have mesmerized humanity since the existence of such reservoirs was put forward as a hypothesis. Getting an answer in the last century seemed almost impossible because there was simply no way of drilling a well to the surface of the lake without letting it freeze at the same time.
On February 5th, 2012, after tens of years of drilling, a group of Russian scientists managed to reach a depth mark of 3,769.3 meters, penetrating Lake Vostok’s surface located under the polar station, and extracted water samples from it. Naturally such efforts required major financial support, but what was the practical benefit?
The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) believes that studying the subsurface reservoir is a necessary step to finding traces of life on Mars and other planets in the solar system. Many planets contain hidden seas under the icy surface. It has already been proved that, in addition to Mars, such seas exist on Pluto, Europe (Jupiter’s satellite) and some other celestial bodies.
However, there is another important task that scientists are facing today – defining the tendencies of climate change. One of the most effective methods to learn more about the process of climate change and collecting analytical data is observing and examining the ice cores from wells in Antarctica (some been a half a million years old) and relic water samples from Lake Vostok. Russian and French research laboratories are deep into this study as we speak.
"Deep well surveying at Vostok station allowed us to get a number of outstanding scientific results," says Nikolay Vasilyev, a professor at the St. Petersburg Mining University, who led drilling operations on the sixth continent for many years. - For example, by examining the isotope and providing glaciological studies of ice cores we were able to create a paleoclimatic reconstruction of the Earth's climate throughout the four glacial and interglacial periods, establishing the cyclic nature of its change."
What was found in Lake Vostok
The Russian polar station Vostok was founded in 1957. A theory emerged about the existence of the largest subglacial lake on the continent approximately at the same time,. Even though the task to penetrate the reservoir was not initially set, the first installations appeared in Antarctica in 1970 aiming to prove the possibility of deep drilling of glaciers, and also to obtain ice cores for glaciological and geophysical research. An idea to drill a well reaching the lake occurred only in 1998.
From the very start of the experiment, the overwhelming majority of scientists assumed that geothermal activity could exist under the ice, but rejected the hypothesis that relic species of animals could live there. The experts had mild expectations stating that hardly any dinosaurs would be found underwater, so local fauna would be at best represented by bacteria-oxygenophiles.
During the study of ice cores raised from different depths, microorganisms that have been in anabiosis for more than 200 thousand years were indeed discovered and revitalized. Furthermore, scientists were able to find mineral inclusions up to 1.5 centimeters in size at one hundred and fifty meters under the surface of the reservoir. In addition, specialists from the St Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute have identified three types of bacteria similar to those developing in hydrothermal vents of the oceans at temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius.
This means that Lake Vostok has all typical signs of biological processes. It is possible that in such a completely isolated system these processes may continue to take place in the future.
Prospects of Russian-French cooperation
Ice cylinders obtained from the well above Lake Vostok are stored in the laboratories of the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in St. Petersburg. During her visit, Ségolène Royal has seen these cores and learned about the results of climate change research. The ex-candidate for the presidency of the Fifth Republic noted that similar work is done in France. She called for strengthening the Franco-Russian cooperation in this sphere.
"I would like to contribute to strengthening our cooperation in the Arctic and Antarctic. There are about 400 polar researchers in France, we have a long history of fruitfull cooperation with Russian scientists. This work is particularly important facing the threat of global warming. This is a challenge to all of humanity and we must respond to it together," said Ségolène Royal..
It’s noteworthy, that Mrs. Royal was one of the initiators of the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, where the nations’ representatives from about a one hundred countries agreed on the steps keeping the growth of average temperature of the planet within 2 degrees Celsius.
This goal, despite the United States of America withdrawal from the agreement, remains even more relevant. Its achievement, however, depends on many factors including how successful the cooperation of Russian and French scientists in Antarctica will be.