It seems that nearly all my life has been associated one way or another with Vostok Station and the Lake beneath it, now known as Lake Vostok. Vostok Station was opened in 1957, 35 years before the discovery of Lake Vostok was officially declared. I came to Vostok Station in 1958 working on a project to drill into the ice sheet, or more accurately, to melt a borehole with the intent to penetrate deep enough to find the temperature difference at the bottom of the ice sheet. Unfortunately, to my dismay, my "drill" broke down at a depth of 50 meters. I thought then that with some luck, we will penetrate the ice sheet by simply melting through the ice column in 2-3 years. I would not have believed then, in 1958, that we would be drilling the ice sheet for more than 30 years and still not reach the bottom.
Following my graduation from the Moscow Aviation Institute in the Soviet Union in 1949 I worked for three years on the heat transfer and thermodynamic problems of designing jet engines. Following that I worked, from 1952 until 1958, on the re-entry problems of the first Soviet ballistic missile, mainly related to melting/ evaporation of its nose by the heat that was generated by its return to Earth. My Ph.D. in this field in 1957 coincided with the beginning of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) and Soviet Union participation in the study of Antarctica. The possibility to go to Antarctica and see the largest glacier on Earth and also view the world from outside the Soviet Union resulted in my application to work there as a "thermo-physics researcher" in the glaciological science branch of the expedition. Upon my application being accepted, I learned about Vostok Station and the prospect of working on the thermal regime of the Antarctic Ice Sheet.
In 1960-1963 I published papers that showed the temperature at the bottom of the ice sheet below Vostok Station to be at the ice melting point, as well as being beneath the thickest part of the ice sheet. It occurred to me that lakes might exist at the ice/rock interface, and that some kind of life should exist there. There did not seem to be much interest in the prospect of life then, in 1963, although my publications were taken seriously and translated and published in English. As a result, I
suddenly and unexpectedly became a glaciologist, and I determined that my future would be devoted to Antarctica.
In 1963 I re-visited Vostok Station as a member of Dr. Kapitsa's team to participate in his traverse, during which seismic soundings of the ice sheet showed reflections from the top and bottom surfaces of what is now known as Lake Vostok. However, none of us would hear of confirmation of its existence for a further 30 years.
In 1965 I spent my second overwinter in Antarctica at the main American research station, McMurdo, as a Soviet exchange scientist and member of the U.S. "Deep Freeze 65'' Antarctic Expedition. I studied the processes of freezing and melting at the bottom of the Ross Ice Shelf and met leading American specialists on deep drilling of the ice sheet. I summarized the results of my Antarctic expeditions in a DSc. dissertation on glaciology in 1967, with an emphasis on bottom melting of a large area of the central part of the Antarctic Ice Sheet with the presence of meltwater at the bottom. However, few glaciologists agreed with this concept at this time, and for that reason I felt that I could not defend my dissertation successfully. Fortunately, my American colleagues at that time were drilling to the bottom of the ice sheet at Byrd Station (80°S, 120°W) and found liquid water at the bottom. My driller friends informed me of their find by telegram in the Soviet Union, and I then presented the news to the Science Council of the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in Leningrad.
In 19721 was invited by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) to join the Ross Ice Shelf Project (RISP), becoming a Principal Investigator to determine whether freezing or melting occurs at the bottom of the Ross Ice Shelf, working on this project until 1978 using McMurdo as a base. McMurdo was also the base for Dr. G. de Q. Robin's science team using a U.S. Navy LC-130 aircraft for radio-echo sounding to locate subglacial lakes below the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. Some evidence was found during those surveys of a large subglacial lake near Vostok Station.
Dr. Robin and I knew each other as a result of a common interest in the existence of subglacial lakes and, as a result, I participated in flights to find surface evidence of the lake beneath Vostok Station. In 1993, after we confirmed evidence of Lake Vostok's existence, I was in Cambridge, U.K., at the Scott Polar Research Institute assisting Dr. Robin to organize the first, and later, second workshops on the study of Lake Vostok, resulting in a coauthored article published in Nature. The lake thus became publicized for future studies by a wide scientific community.
Lake Vostok is a remarkable feature in that it serves a multidisciplinary group of studies in glaciological, geophysical, hydrological, biological, and planetary research. Located under 4,000 m of ice in the interior of East Antarctica, it occupies a depression in the bedrock beneath Vostok Station. The lake is about 250 km long and 50 km wide, comparable with Lake Ontario in North America. Seismic studies suggest that the lake is as much as 1,000 m deep. It is considered by many that the discovery of Lake Vostok is among the most important geographical discoveries of the second half of the twentieth century.
The bottom of the ice is at the pressure melting point, warmed by geothermal heat. The amount of trapped heat is small, but the lake is too far below the ice sheet surface for the penetration of low temperature extremes of the Antarctic atmosphere. This part of the Antarctic Ice Sheet has remained relatively stable for many hundreds of thousands of years, perhaps in excess of a million years, although it has thickened and thinned in response to global and regional climatic changes.
An intensive drilling campaign has been carried out for about 30 years by Russian scientists at Vostok Station for ice cores for climate research. As the drilling achieved greater depths the possibility of reaching the ice sheet base became a reality. However, concerns were raised by the scientific community about the consequences of drilling through the ice and entering the lake. For example, what would happen when the drill reaches the water? Does the lake contain uncontaminated water and micro-organisms? What sort of biological life might exist at 4,000 m beneath the ice, isolated from other influences for perhaps a million years? These issues led to several international workshops on Lake Vostok to consider the wider implications, a possible science plan for the drilling and sampling of the lake water, and other necessary investigations and technical developments.
The aim of this book is to collate material about Lake Vostok and to organize and synthesize it to establish its complete geographical picture. I hope that this will help to establish a new understanding of the different and still hidden aspects of the phenomenon for the interest of the general public and scientists. The following topics are covered in the book:
(1) Glaciology of the central part of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet is discussed, including the related aspects of the heat balance at the bottom of the ice sheet; critical thickness, bottom melting and subglacial lake concepts; the existence of life in subglacial water (glaciological reasons); and the average bottom water layer thickness.
(2) The problem of Lake Vostok as one of many other subglacial lakes is examined. It includes a summary of radio-echo sounding surveys of subglacial lakes; seismic determinations and their interpretation; satellite altimetry data and other surface evidence of subglacial lakes; a history of the discovery and the type of ice cover of Lake Vostok (internal Lake Vostok Ice Shelf concept); and the salinity and currents in the water of the lake.
(3) Modern data on biological inclusions in the Vostok ice core, and the ecology of Lake Vostok water and its living creatures (micro-organisms) are critically reviewed. The scientific importance of life in such a lake is discussed, along with the possibility that Lake Vostok organisms, if any, might present a danger for the rest of the world.
(4) Applications to planetary studies include plans to penetrate the ice cover of Europa (a moon of Jupiter) for subglacial water, as well as subglacial lakes beneath Martian ice.
(5) Penetration into the lake is discussed as a major topical problem. Topics include a comparative analysis of methods of penetration through the ice sheet; a history of deep drilling at Vostok Station; problems of the possibility of contamination of organisms on penetration into Lake Vostok; and autonomous nuclear powered subglacial stations and the NASA "Cryobot" concepts for use in Lake Vostok and for planetary studies.
At the time of writing this book (January 2006) Lake Vostok had not been drilled into. The most exciting and important part of this scientific story will come to us in 3-5 years when we, hopefully, obtain samples of the water from the lake, investigate the water thickness via remote systems, and discover any implications. Experimental data on the salinity and currents in the lake's water, and data on biological material, if present, will possibly change the interpretation of their existence. These events might happen relatively soon (2010-2015), but this book will serve as a prelude to what will surely result from studies of this remarkable feature.
It is uncertain whether British, American, Russian or scientists from other countries will be first to penetrate the ice sheet and probe the lake, but approaches to the penetration in Russia are currently different, depending on the country.
During recent years I worked intensively on the issues of Lake Vostok in Russia, with support from the Russian Foundation for Basical Research (RFBR). I received awards for a 3-year grant in 1996 for "Lake Vostok Studies'', a 2-year grant in 1999 for "An alternative approach to Lake Vostok Genesis'', and a 2-year grant in 2001 for further studies. Work on these grants generated a large amount of material in Russian, and I became a member of a committee for the evaluation of Russian drilling equipment for the purpose of penetrating the lake. I thank the RFBR for their support of this work.
The idea to write a book about Lake Vostok was proposed to me by Clive Horwood of PRAXIS Publishing Ltd (U.K.) in 1998 following a suggestion by one of his leading authors, Academician Kirill Kondratyev. It was planned to be a strictly scientific book in the beginning, but in the process of writing I yielded to the idea of a content that would be more popular in nature, essentially a "drama of ideas''. This change, however, delayed the completion of the draft manuscript.
In the autumn of 2003 I received a grant from the U.S.A. Fulbright Foundation for 8 months of work in the U.S.A. on a project called "Geographical study of Lake Vostok (Antarctica) based on glaciological, geophysical, hydrological, biological, and planetary data analyses''. I left the Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences, for the U.S.A. to conduct the project under the auspices and direction of Dr. Roger Barry, my friend and colleague for more than 25 years, and Director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences of the University of Colorado at Boulder. My work there began in January 2004, and with Dr. Barry's enthusiastic support, my first draft was completed in September 2004.
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