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Science/Fiction

Lake Vostok: Lost world finally revealed

About the author

Described by the Times as “the world’s most enthusiastic man” and the Daily Mail as someone whose “wit and enthusiasm can enliven the dullest of topics”,  Quentin is a broadcaster, film critic and author best known for presenting the UK's most listened to science programme, The Material World on BBC Radio 4 . It’s “quite the best thing on radio”, according to Bill Bryson. You can find him on Twitter at @materialworld

(Copyright: Nasa)

(Copyright: Nasa)

After Russian scientists finally reached an Antarctic lake cut off from the world for thousands of years, Quentin Cooper wonders why reports suggest they might encounter dinosaurs.

As a child of, oh, about seven, I decided to tunnel from my back garden to the other side of the world. My reasoning was sound – provided each day I dug a little deeper it would only be a matter of time before I reached Australia. After a week I got bored and gave up.

Which is why I marvel at the Russians who did not. The ones two-and-a-half miles above Lake Vostok in the Antarctic who – despite having to brave the coldest recorded temperature on Earth – kept their gaze resolutely downwards for more than a decade, drilling a little deeper every year until just weeks ago, when they finally reached the surface of this largest and most secluded subglacial lake.

An amazing achievement... providing they haven’t already gone too far and contaminated the pristine waters and fragile ecosystems it is presumed to contain. There is general agreement in much of the media coverage that its untouched waters have been cut off from the outside world for a staggering 10-20 million years – “isolated from earthly life forms since before Man existed”, as one newspaper put it.

The researchers insist they have been ultra-careful... although according to a Russian state-owned news agency they have already sampled the lake water and gifted some to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who said it was “interesting” because “dinosaurs drank it”. Curiouser still, the liquid was apparently yellowish.  

Inevitably, given such elements, some articles have made references to Arthur Conan Doyle’s 100-year-old novel The Lost World, suggesting the tunnelling Russians could break through to find, if not actual dinosaurs, then all manner of strange creatures previously thought extinct.

A far better fictional forerunner for these eager ice burrowers is Edgar Rice Burroughs, and his novels The Land That Time Forgot and The People That Time Forgot, both filmed with dodgy special effects in the 1970s. As with The Lost World you get stop-motion dinosaurs still at large, but here just like Lake Vostok the long cut-off ecosystem is close to the South Pole, surrounded by ice and accessed by going under water. The tag line for one of the films was even “A lost world shut off by a wall of ice, roamed by beasts unknown to science”, which could have come straight from tabloid reports of the Russian drilling.

These and other fantasy sources all trickle into the news coverage, polluting our expectations. It seems almost churlish to point out that 10-20 million years is how long Lake Vostok has been under ice, not how long the water within it has been isolated. There is growing evidence that its contents are perpetually freezing and being replaced by water from other parts of the ice sheet melting under high pressure, and that it may be more realistic to think in terms of whatever is down there being cut off for 10-20 thousand years rather than 10-20 million.  

Even if the water had been locked away untouched for 20 million years, this is nowhere near long enough for the dinosaurs mentioned by Putin to put in an appearance – they were wiped out around 65 million years ago. However, 20,000 years is still enough to mean there is a good chance of finding some unknown microbes in the lake. Drilling through the ice has already produced cores containing bacteria, fungi and algae, related to, but different from species at the surface today. Or just as intriguing would be if there is nothing – making it the only spot on Earth to have natural water without life.  

Either of these, likely, findings will be a scientifically significant and a triumph over the testing conditions. It may also provide the impetus for another firm favourite of science fiction – the search for extraterrestrial life. Vostok has long been thought of as an analogue for the sub-surface oceans that exist in our solar system; in places like the Jovian moons of Europa and Ganymede. If we find life at Vostok, the thinking goes, it could give us clues for what we should look for on these extraterrestrial water worlds. And the techniques we use to explore the deep Antarctic could allow us to perfect the technology that we will require to hunt for and sample any alien creatures.

There is no mission on the cards just yet, but there have been some intriguing proposals put forward including one for a nuclear-powered “cryobot” to melt through the ice into the waters below. Once there, a “hydrobot” would be deployed to sniff out our alien cousins.

If that sounds like science with a dose of fiction, think again. Prototypes of less ambitious craft have already been built and tested in the Arctic and Antarctic. And it is possible that it is the kind of technology that could eventually slip into Vostok.

If and when it does, it could calm some of the prehistoric hysterics we have read and heard over recent weeks. And maybe it will finally put an end to the kind of stories that will try to suggest the liquid given Putin was yellow because it contained urine from living dinosaurs.

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