Exactly 10 years ago, on February 5, 2012, Russian scientists from St. Petersburg Mining University and the AARI were the first in the world to penetrate the subglacial Antarctic reservoir - Lake Vostok - and take unique water samples there, isolated from the outside world for millions of years. To make this scientific breakthrough, the polar explorers drilled the deepest hole on the planet in the ice: 3769 meters deep. This is the height of the glacier, formed over the continent in the area of the Vostok Research Station.
As specified in the theoretical calculations, after the projectile came in contact with water, it rose the borehole almost 600 meters, then dropped to a level of 363 meters above the surface of the lake and froze. A year later, during another expedition, the St. Petersburg scientists extracted from the Antarctic ice thickness “fresh-frozen” cores of enormous scientific value. Their further study under laboratory conditions provided many new scientific data, including in the field of paleoclimatology. It was necessary to make graphs reflecting the content of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the past hundreds of thousands and even millions of years. And to refine predictions about future changes in the Earth’s global temperature.
“The unique rigs and auxiliary equipment used at Vostok station were created at St. Petersburg Mining University. For more than half a century our scientists have been annually sent to Antarctica as part of seasonal detachments. Their purpose is to carry out drilling operations, control the technical condition of the units, and hold full-scale experiments related to the implementation of innovations in this sphere. If we talk about the discovery of Lake Vostok, this event, without a doubt, can be compared with the news about human flight into space. It was another proof that Russia is among the world leaders in terms of its intellectual potential and scientific and industrial development,” says Vladimir Litvinenko, Rector of the oldest technical school in our country.
In the photo: The thermos drill-core system for sinking deep holes in ice was developed at the department of drilling at St. Petersburg Mining University and manufactured in the university’s experimental and production workshops. It was used till 1998. Now it is stored in the Mining Museum.
There is no exaggeration in this statement. After all, in 2012-13, there were not one but three attempts to penetrate the subglacial Antarctic lakes. In addition to Russian engineers, the British and Americans were also planning to get samples of relict water. The former drilled above Ellsworth Lake, which is located at a depth of about 3400 meters in the western part of the continent, but failed. The technology developed in the United Kingdom allowed only a few hundred meters into the ice sheet, after which the experiment had to be postponed until better times because of equipment failures.
The efforts of scientists from the United States were slightly more fruitful. Representatives of the United States successfully uncovered Lake Willans in January 2013. However, this body of water is located much closer to the coast, and therefore the thickness of the ice shell over it is much less - only 800 meters. In addition, unlike Vostok, the depth of which exceeds half a kilometer, the object of study of Americans is much smaller in scale. The distance from the surface to the bottom there is only about two meters.
During the study of fluid samples taken from Lake Willans, for example, it turned out that it is a hundred times less salty than seawater. But at the same time, it is almost an order of magnitude saltier than the samples taken by the Russians from Vostok. Other important scientific results were also achieved. However, obtaining samples of ice cores in the course of this study was not the task, the emphasis was made on the study of water and bottom sediments, which somewhat narrowed the value of the experiment.
Western scientists later made several more attempts to repeat the achievement of their Russian colleagues. The most scientifically interesting was an American project aimed at studying subglacial geobiology, water column, and sedimentary organic carbon in the subglacial Lake Mercer. It lies 1,080 meters below the surface of the ice and is 15 meters deep. That is, it is larger than Willans, but much smaller than Vostok.
“For the sediment sampling that was done in 2018, a specially designed sampler was used there, capable of extracting a core over 6 meters long due to its heavyweight and long core pipe. This experience can be considered one of the most valuable in the field of subglacial lakes research. Scientists from the U.S. are planning to use it to develop a technology capable of drilling into the ice to a depth of 4 kilometers. However, at the moment it is the well drilled by our specialists that remains the deepest in Antarctica,” said Danil Serbin, a leading engineer of Mining University.
Today he is a member of the seasonal team of polar explorers at Vostok research station, where Russian engineers and their Korean colleague continue to take core samples, which age varies from 400 to 500 thousand years. A real queue of researchers has lined up for these cylinders. For even though scientists have recently managed to obtain a lot of new data about the history of the climate, up to the Quaternary and Tertiary periods, new knowledge is required for reliable conclusions about the cause of its current transformations and, even more so, for making accurate predictions.
In the photo: a Korean specialist, who joined this year’s seasonal team of polar explorers working at Vostok station, and his Russian colleague extracting core samples from the core tube
According to Martin Seagert, a renowned British glaciologist and co-director of the Institute of Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London, specialists working on the White Continent face many pressing questions. For example, “how do subglacial hydrology and geothermal heat flow affect the dynamics and stability of ice sheets?” And “what effect do subglacial systems have on the patterns of life on Earth and other planets?”
Rector of St. Petersburg Mining University Vladimir Litvinenko said that scientists at the university, which he directs, have identified several objects of study at the interdisciplinary level to obtain new knowledge about the impact of the carbon cycle on the Earth’s climate. They will provide reliable data to build the most accurate predictions of its transformation.
“We are talking, for example, about studying the subglacial lake ecosphere and deep phenomena affecting the Earth’s magnetosphere. That is, on the geomagnetic field, which is a complex and extremely heterogeneous plasma system that generates and propagates various types of electromagnetic oscillations. Science still has only preliminary models of these physical processes. By drilling the well down to the bedrock and carrying out full-scale studies downhole, we will be able to improve the quality of measurements of these most complex physical processes and obtain scientific results of a much higher level of reliability,” Vladimir Litvinenko is sure.
The scientific station Vostok, founded back in 1957, as well as the drilling complex, which bears the name of the legendary polar explorer Boris Kudryashov, have long been outdated, both morally and physically. Therefore, it would be no exaggeration to call the scientists who carry out research there in the most unfavorable weather conditions (eternal frost and extremely low oxygen content in the air) real heroes.
However, their living conditions will soon become much more comfortable. A new wintering complex is already being assembled in the vicinity of the current station. This will increase the number of seasonal team members and the quantity and quality of scientific research. Moreover, the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute is planning to open a branch of its climate change and environment laboratory here.
A project of a new drilling complex, which will be located close to Vostok Station, is also under development. Its construction is necessary for the intensification of studies of the subglacial lake. In particular, to take bottom sediments and water samples from different horizons.
“The drilling complex will consist of a building with a derrick, where we will house the main and auxiliary drilling equipment, as well as two diesel power plants. It will also include the so-called ‘clean room’ required for the preparation of field-specific equipment, a storage room, and some other premises. Naturally, specially developed environmentally safe technologies and technical means will be used for drilling operations,” noted Alexey Bolshunov, head of the scientific party of Mining University.
It should be noted that the scientists of St. Petersburg Mining University received many letters of congratulations today and the day before. One of them was sent by “in development and implementation of the accident-free opening of subglacial Lake Vostok the decisive contribution was made by the staff of Mining University under the leadership of Boris Kudryashov and Nikolay Vasilyev, whose names will forever be immortalized in the history of Antarctic studies". He also wished Rector Vladimir Litvinenko good luck in preparing a new generation of polar explorers and further achievements on the White Continent.