Introduction

The evolutionary history of Antarctic lakes reflects the history of the continent itself. More than 170 Mya, Antarctica was part of the supercontinent Gondwana. Over time Gondwana broke apart and Antarctica, as we know it today, was formed around 25 Mya. During its evolution, the continent underwent numerous climate shifts. Around 65 Mya, Antarctica still had a tropical to subtropical climate, complete with an Australasian flora and fauna. Ice first began to appear around 40 Mya. The opening of the Drake Passage between Antarctica and South America around 23 Mya resulted in the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which effectively isolated the advection of lower latitude warm water to the region, leading to continent-scale glaciations that now typify Antarctica. The period between 14.8 and 13.6 Mya (mid Miocene) saw an important change in the landscape evolution. During this time, the linked climate-and-glacial system changed from one dominated by intermittent fluvial erosion and wet-based glaciation, to one featuring a largely cold-based ice sheet, with cold-based alpine glaciers in the hyperarid, cold-desert conditions of the Transantarctic Mountains. The last Antarctic glaciation reached a maximum around 18 000 years ago, a period when the present ice sheet was much thicker and extended out to the edge of the continental shelf. The icecaps of offshore islands were similarly more extensive. These extensive ice sheets retreated during the late Pleistocene and have remained relatively stable during the current Holocene epoch. As a result of this temporal evolution, we now see lakes distributed on maritime islands, along the margins of the continent in ablation regions, and subglacially, beneath the thick ice sheet. All these lakes reflect, to varying degrees, the legacy left by past geological and climatological conditions.

This article describes the formation, distribution, and diversity of lakes in selected regions in Antarctica where focused research efforts have occurred. Although no subglacial lakes have been sampled directly, we present an overview of what is known about them, with a focus on Lake Vostok, the largest of these lakes.

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