Sometime within the next few months, a Russian device may dip into a place where no man has been before. It won't be on another planet, or even the dark side of the moon. It will be on this planet, in one of Earth's most austere regions, in a place that has not been disturbed in millions of years.
A Russian drilling rig has penetrated through more than two miles of Antarctic ice and is within about 70 meters of a huge subglacial lake that may harbor microbial colonies that are unlike anything ever seen on Earth. It's an exciting time for some scientists, and a matter of concern to others.
Lake Vostok is a huge body of fresh water, about the size of Lake Ontario, that is part of a recently discovered network of at least 150 lakes beneath Antarctica's massive ice sheets. The immense pressure of the ice keeps the water in a liquid form. The lakes are fed by subglacial rivers that pump water throughout an astonishing aquatic system, at least a couple of miles below the top of the ice field.
The rivers and lakes are now thought to play a key role in regulating the flow of Antarctica's ice sheets toward the ocean.
"The water under the ice sheets is what lubricates the glaciers and controls their movement toward the ocean," said oceanographer Mahlon "Chuck" Kennicutt II of Texas A&M University in College Station.
Kennicutt is involved in several international programs to explore Antarctica, which, for more than 50 years, has been a model of international cooperation.
A team of scientists reported earlier this year that ice above some of the subglacial lakes was moving at a significant pace, at least a couple of meters a day.
"It's really ripping along," Helen Fricker, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, said at the time.
The problem is that no one knows enough about those giant subsurface aquifers — which seem to be key players in the movement of the ice — to really evaluate their potential impact on Antarctica's contribution to sea level rise, due to global warming.
In the wake of the recent intergovernmental panel on climate change, "One of the most compelling things is, we really don't understand what the response of the Antarctic ice sheets will be to global warming," Kennicutt said in an interview.
"About 90 percent of the world's fresh water is tied up in these ice sheets, so it's a major unknown. How will these ice sheets react to the warming that's been predicted?"
And how will any major climate change impact the lakes and rivers beneath the ice, the system's "lubricant"?
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has confirmed that photos from space show a significant link between the flow of ice and the movement of water through some of the subglacial rivers and lakes. That has added to concerns that Antarctica, which, so far, has been an underachiever in the climate change picture, might change more rapidly than had been expected. That's certainly been the case in the Arctic.
Of course, it's unlikely that a single Russian drilling rig is going to precipitate a sudden melting or movement of Antarctica's massive ice fields into the sea, thus inundating most of the planet's coastal regions, but many polar scientists believe the time has come to move forward cautiously.
As for the Russians, they say they have fulfilled the requirements under the international treaty that governs Antarctica, and they are confident their project will do no harm, so there's nothing anyone can do to stop them.