Mysterious Lakes Under Antarctica May Be Threatened

"At the end of the day, it's really a national decision by the Russians over whether they go forward," Kennicutt said.

Scientists are far less worried about triggering an avalanche of disastrous climate changes in Antarctica, than they are about contaminating an environment that is priceless to a number of fields. NASA is particularly concerned, because the frozen South Pole is considered one of the best areas to practice looking for life in places that are different from the conditions that most of us consider habitable.

Scientists have found life virtually everywhere they've looked on this planet, and some expect to find life in the pure, untouched freshwater lakes and rivers beneath the ice on Antarctica. Any attempt to penetrate Lake Vostok, some scientists say, could introduce contaminants that would jeopardize that effort.

It's safe to say no one expects to find living dinosaurs down there. But most likely, tiny organisms that have adapted to a unique environment, will have made their home there. But they could be very vulnerable to any kind of disturbance.

That danger is present in all efforts to explore unknown places, but much has been learned through space exploration, and the threat could be lessened considerably today. Of course, we left a lot of junk on the moon, so it may be difficult to point a finger at someone else.

Kennicutt, for one, argues that Lake Vostok, by far the largest of the subglacial lakes, should be explored when the time is right. But he doesn't think it's the right place to start.

"There's a lot of alternative, less sensitive, places to test the technology," he said.

It could be done in any number of frozen lakes, answering a number of questions. Could penetration cause hydro-fracturing of the well hole, leading to something like an uncontrolled oil well blowout? The Russian drilling rig wasn't designed to penetrate a virgin lake and leave no contamination. Diesel fuel and Freon are used to maintain the well, so is it possible to penetrate the lake and not also contaminate it?

The Russians have said they can do it safely, and they have complied with the governing treaty, which has no enforcement provisions.

"The Russians have made this the centerpiece of their Antarctic program," Kennicutt said. "This is really now a matter of national pride."

They weren't the first to get to the moon. They seem determined to be the first to penetrate Lake Vostok, which blankets about 5,400 square miles directly beneath their research station. It's got to be a very juicy plumb.

Lee Dye is a former science writer for the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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