St. Petersburg Mining University Sends 7 Scientists to Antarctica

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The current visit to the Vostok research station will be the most massive since Soviet times. Including representatives of the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, as well as a specialist from South Korea, the seasonal team of polar explorers will number 12 people.

The “Akademik Fedorov” Vessel has already left St. Petersburg port. It is heading for the shores of the White Continent and carries onboard the first group of scientists, who are to live and work for several months in severe climatic conditions. It was in the region of the East that the lowest in the world temperature in the history of weather observations was recorded - minus 89.2°C. Of course, summer is about to arrive in the Southern Hemisphere, but it will not be hot at this time of year at the “pole of cold” anyway. At best it would be about minus 20-25 degrees (last week the arrow of the thermometer reached -74°C).

However, eternal cold is not the biggest problem for passengers of “Akademik Fedorov” and other researchers (they will join their colleagues a little later). Since the endpoint of their route is in the highlands, the pressure there is abnormally low - on average about 460 mm Hg. Because of this, the oxygen content of the air is much lower than in St. Petersburg. Acclimatization can be very unpleasant, usually taking two or three days, but for some, it stretches over several weeks.

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The main task of Mining University specialists is to conduct a series of experiments needed to drill new access well to Lake Vostok, which is located at a depth of more than 3700 meters under the ice column. For millions of years, it has been isolated from the outside world, and therefore the water samples taken from this reservoir are of great value. After all, previously unknown to science microorganisms can be found there.

During previous penetrations, which took place in 2012 and 2015, our scientists managed to obtain samples from the upper horizon of the lake. The upcoming work should be much more extensive - it involves, among other things, sampling bottom sediments. They will be headed by representatives of the St. Petersburg University which has fifty years of drilling experience in complicated climatic and geological conditions of the sixth continent.

It was the representatives of the oldest higher technical school in Russia who has developed corresponding technologies in the late 1960s and created on their basis breakthrough equipment of that time. And then, in the course of several decades, they not only improved it in laboratory conditions but also personally supervised the course of drilling operations, annually participating in Russian Antarctic expeditions.

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Penetrating Lake Vostok was a world-class scientific achievement,” says Alexei Bolshunov, head of the “Technologies and Techniques of Drilling Wells in the Conditions of Vostok Station” scientific direction at Mining University. “Today we have an equally ambitious goal: to study the lake and take samples of water and bottom sediments. To achieve this, it’s necessary to drill a new well into the lake, using environmentally friendly technologies, so as not to damage the unique natural object. Before embarking on this mission we need to conduct a series of experiments aimed at improving the efficiency of the work.”

What are we talking about? The upper horizon of Antarctica, for example, is not solid ice, but a permeable layer of snow and firn, which is subject to catastrophic losses during drilling with the help of flooding fluid. The innovative method of penetrating the first hundred meters with bottom hole cleaning by air requires additional study of the process of ice cuttings transportation, which is what the polar explorers will do.

They will obtain new fundamental scientific knowledge in such areas as geodynamics, geothermics, hydrogen genesis.

Amongst these tasks is obtaining new fundamental scientific knowledge in geodynamics, geothermics, hydrogen genesis

expansion of the borehole diameter at a certain depth. This method can be useful in several cases, for example, when equipment breaks and it is necessary to deviate in the course of further work from the emergency section.

The second task (in addition to conducting experiments), which scientists from Mining University together with their colleagues from the AARI solve every year, is ice core sampling. This season, it will be conducted in the range of 3300-3600 meters below the surface. Why is it important for science? The cover of the White Continent is made of atmospheric ice which formed from snow crystals, falling from the sky in solid form year after year and century after century. It is not difficult to understand: the lower from the surface of the continent a core is taken, the greater its age. If, for example, it was taken from a depth of 3200 meters, it would be between 400 and 430 thousand years old. By studying its composition it is possible to find out what events were happening at that time in the Earth’s atmosphere, what consequences they led to, and, based on this information, to make the most accurate forecast of climate change in the future as compared to any other method.

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"No less important mission we have before us is to ensure the change of generations,” says Andrei Dmitriev, associate professor of the Well Drilling Department at St. Petersburg Mining University. “Four of our employees who have never been there before are going to Antarctica. Three of them are young people under the age of 30. It is necessary to understand, whether they are ready to work in such severe conditions, whether they can adapt to them. Also, the young men need to work on the equipment installed there and become familiar with the whole drilling complex. By the way, it is named after our university professor Boris Kudryashov, this is the official name on all the maps of the world. It was this man who developed the theory of rock drilling by fusion, as well as methods of thermal and mechanical destruction of ice. Under his leadership, work began on the construction of a well above Lake Vostok.”

This year, another ambitious project will be launched in Antarctica. Specialists of Zapsibgazprom, AARI, and RAE will start assembling a new wintering complex created by NOVATEK on the prepared snow base. The complex was presented in Gatchina in August last year. It is a three-story building 17 meters high on 36 pillars. Inside there are modern laboratories, offices, and living quarters for 25 people. The life support system is fully autonomous and computerized. One operator is enough to monitor the operation of generators, ventilation, and water purification system.

Scientists from St. Petersburg Mining University are sure that this complex will turn the station into a real scientific cluster, capable of functioning in multitasking mode. This will undoubtedly speed up the work on drilling the new access well to the subglacial Lake Vostok, using environmentally friendly technologies. And it will create prerequisites for obtaining new fundamental knowledge to understand the processes that took place on the planet millions of years ago, and to make predictions for the future, including those related to the most urgent issues of climate change.