Face the thing that should not be
February 8, 2012 11:22 AM   Subscribe

In the coldest spot on the earth’s coldest continent, Russian scientists have reached a freshwater lake the size of Lake Ontario after spending a decade drilling through more than two miles of solid ice. Maybe the mountains of madness are underground. Lovecraft would loved to have seen this.
posted by Hickeystudio (76 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
"The Horror of Lake Shoggoth"
posted by Artw at 11:24 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I like to imagine the inspiration for all future research projects has to come from an old pulp paperback or you can't get funding.
posted by The Whelk at 11:26 AM on February 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


Damn it, man, we've all seen that episode of the X-Files! What are you thinking?!

I wonder how on Earth they're gonna be able to take samples of the water without contaminating it at all.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:27 AM on February 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Great, there's going to be hell to pay when the Russians discover that we've been violating the Dresden Agreement by running covert ops via the Elder Things' gateway at the bottom of Lake Vostok.
posted by Doktor Zed at 11:27 AM on February 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


Even forbid we should leave a part of the earth untainted.
posted by entropicamericana at 11:27 AM on February 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


Heaven forbid, even.
posted by entropicamericana at 11:28 AM on February 8, 2012


FWIW, Ontario is larger than France and Spain , combined.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:28 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I keep thinking about Krynoid seed pods...
posted by oonh at 11:28 AM on February 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


This can only end in one of two ways:
1) The lake contains something horrible that will doom us all.
2) The lake contains the only thing that can stop a horrible thing that will doom us all, and we've screwed it up.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:29 AM on February 8, 2012 [20 favorites]


Spending a decade drilling through solid i does sound pretty horrific.
posted by 2bucksplus at 11:29 AM on February 8, 2012


My money is on woolly mammoths.
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:31 AM on February 8, 2012


FWIW, Ontario is larger than France and Spain , combined.

WIW isn't much, it's the size of Lake Ontario.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 11:31 AM on February 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


Lake Vostok Vodka - "Colder than a Shoggoths teat(s)"





Next stop Europa!
posted by Capricorn13 at 11:31 AM on February 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


3) The lake contains beer cans, shopping carts, and old tires.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 11:32 AM on February 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


... FROM HELL
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:33 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


3a) And carp.
posted by maxwelton at 11:33 AM on February 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Dr. Lukin said ... "For me, the discovery of this lake is comparable with the first flight into space ... by technological complexity, by importance, by uniqueness."

Though not so much by visible glamorousness and heroics, eh what?
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:34 AM on February 8, 2012


Lake Ontario is a big lake - 393 cubic miles of freshwater. They don't call them the Great Lakes (of which LO is second smallest) for nothing.
posted by ceribus peribus at 11:36 AM on February 8, 2012


Yeah, I'm betting we'll see some Vostok Vodka soon, to be paired with Russian caviar.

Unless of course it's a big puddle of mammoth pee. Then the Russians will use flood the market and destroy the US light beer industry.
posted by Kabanos at 11:38 AM on February 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


Since cortex rudely harshed my paranormal shit mellow by deleting the mammoth thread, I'm counting on this to produce something creepy.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:41 AM on February 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ow, my i! I'm not supposed to get drills in it!
posted by Sys Rq at 11:42 AM on February 8, 2012


That water sounds like the most awesomely refreshing drink on earth.
posted by dr_dank at 11:45 AM on February 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


I've been following this news for several years and it's very exciting that they've broken through. And I hope the drilling process hasn't contaminated the lake.
posted by rtha at 11:50 AM on February 8, 2012


>FWIW, Ontario is larger than France and Spain , combined.

WIW isn't much, it's the size of Lake Ontario.


Ah, whoops, sorry about that. To clarify and to make things easier to understand for non-Canadians, Lake Ontario is bigger than PEI.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:52 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is it really possible that the amount of pollution that the drilling process could introduce into a lake of this size could result in a tantamount extinction of any and all unique life contained therein?
posted by Atreides at 11:53 AM on February 8, 2012


Is it really possible that the amount of pollution that the drilling process could introduce into a lake of this size could result in a tantamount extinction of any and all unique life contained therein?

No, that would be very unlikely, not least because of the niche environment. The concern is of contaminating the sample. If we find life we want to be sure that it was there before, not introduced by the drill.
posted by atrazine at 11:58 AM on February 8, 2012


My immediate desire is to drink some of that water. God knows what's living in it, but I really really want to taste it. I know, I know, that's the start of a horror story waiting to happen.
posted by yasaman at 11:59 AM on February 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


To clarify and to make things easier to understand for non-Canadians, Lake Ontario is bigger than PEI.

No one outside of Canada believes PEI exists.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 12:02 PM on February 8, 2012 [19 favorites]


Let's not forget all the chemicals they're pumping into the lake to get that drill down there...it was a beautiful, pristine environment, and we killed it to discover its beauty!
posted by Chuffy at 12:04 PM on February 8, 2012


Let's not forget all the chemicals they're pumping into the lake to get that drill down there

The drilling fluid was pushed back into the bore by the great water pressure of the lake, and frozen in ice... the process was engineered to leave the lake pristine.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:06 PM on February 8, 2012


Four-part video series, which I was just about to make into an FPP.
posted by obscurator at 12:14 PM on February 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


Previously

More Previously
posted by TedW at 12:18 PM on February 8, 2012


So I see the info we're getting about this is in the form of press releases, following on the heels of several days of loss of contact with the drilling crew.

Right.

I'm thinking that if I were part of any relief team or media crew heading out to that station, I'd take along a dog, a cat, and someone very close to one of the scientists to see if there are any subtle changes in scent, appearance or behavior. Maybe check their notebooks for any entries that suddenly end or strange sketches of insane symbols and impossible machines. Maybe pack some C-4 in my duffle bag and bring along a homing beacon and some flares, just in case something about the guys or the camp seems off.

Just sayin'.
posted by lord_wolf at 12:21 PM on February 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


The drilling fluid was pushed back into the bore by the great water pressure of the lake, and frozen in ice... the process was engineered to leave the lake pristine.

Riiiiight.
So they dumped a shitton of kerosene and freon down there, and they're absolutely sure they didn't screw up anywhere.

Given how concerned about the lake they've already polluted, are you actually sure they haven't pissed in this one already.

Too bad we couldn't stay out of the pool until we cleaned up our other messes.
posted by BlueHorse at 12:24 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


So, we drilled into the lake. That's fine and dandy. But the article stops there; are there no plans of further research? Is it drilling for its own sake? I'm sure there's a next step, but I want to know what will be studied!
posted by Turkey Glue at 12:24 PM on February 8, 2012


Thanks for posting this - it's definitely the most interesting news story of the past year - fascinating!
posted by facetious at 12:25 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Now that's very odd. They have stopped for years, in fear that a contamination may occour, not only by drilling fluid (very nasty stuff), but also by bacteria in the fluid, which would possibly reduce or negate part of the scientific value of the exploration; so much so that, afaik, even Nasa got involved into coinceiving a vessel that would have reduced the chance of contamination to zero etc.

All of the sudden they realize there's a pressure differential, which had occourred to me and probably to many far more skilled people before me, and decided to tap the lake. Oh, really?

I find it hard to believe they didn't take pressure difference in consideration and now all of the sudden "oh wait, pressure difference will be enough to preserve the lake".

That's odd.
posted by elpapacito at 12:25 PM on February 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


I can't wait until I can get some of it in individual 8 oz. bottles!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:26 PM on February 8, 2012


For reference on what to do in these circumstances, the text to John Campbell's Who Goes There?
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 12:27 PM on February 8, 2012 [4 favorites]



Great, there's going to be hell to pay when the Russians discover that we've been violating the Dresden Agreement by running covert ops via the Elder Things' gateway at the bottom of Lake Vostok.


Read this awhile back when I saw it linked in another mefi comment.

For some reason, read it again just now.

* stares out into the vast horror of space and wants a drink *
posted by curious nu at 12:31 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's not that they just realized there is a pressure difference - that was always the plan - what changed was how they drilled the final part of the bore, they switched to a thermal lance instead of just plunging in their kerosene soaked drill bit.
posted by zeoslap at 12:54 PM on February 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Read this awhile back when I saw it linked in another mefi comment.

For some reason, read it again just now.

* stares out into the vast horror of space and wants a drink *


I've probably linked it more times than I should. Will probably link it again.
posted by Artw at 12:58 PM on February 8, 2012


Available in print in Wireless by our own cstross.

I'm currently boggling on all cylinders reading the last story in there, Palimpsest.
posted by hardcode at 1:10 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's not a good idea to read Palimpsest if you're in a bad mood, just sayin.
posted by The Whelk at 1:14 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


The linked article, nor the comments here ever get to the biggest question; WHAT'S THE POINT? I mean seriously, who cares if there isn't a query we are in question of and drilling into the lake would answer.
posted by Keith Talent at 1:16 PM on February 8, 2012


Tekeli-li, Tekeli-li!
posted by Renoroc at 1:27 PM on February 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


As planned, lake water under pressure rushed up the bore hole 100-130 feet pushing drilling fluid up and away from the pristine water (emphasis mine)

As planned? How the fuck could anyone have possibly known this would happen without drilling into it first? The lake is still above sea level, is it not?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:43 PM on February 8, 2012


You know what they will find there? A bunch of Finnish people taking a vacation and swimming naked in it. ;)
posted by usagizero at 1:45 PM on February 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


On a more serious note, why aren't there unique fossils all over Antarctica? Did it split off Pangea before life took off or not have much life on it at all before it froze? Something i've always been curious about but don't know enough about it all really. Seems like since islands have pretty neat ecosystems before we messed them up, there should have been life that evolved differently than the main land masses. I watched a PBS show about how they took cores and showed it was warmer off and on, had a good deal of vegetation, so why no land animals? Are the fossils just really hard to get to and find now with all the ice?
posted by usagizero at 1:50 PM on February 8, 2012


No one outside of Canada believes PEI exists.

Of course PEI exisits.

If you squint a little and look towards the west, just as the sun has finished setting, you can sometimes see it there, floating just over the horizon, with its Zeppelins and apricot-colored sails, the evening light glinting off of its glass domes and silver spires...
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:55 PM on February 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


As planned? How the fuck could anyone have possibly known this would happen without drilling into it first?

Because hydraulics is a thing.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:59 PM on February 8, 2012 [10 favorites]


Usagizero-- on a phone and having trouble linking, but there definitely are fossils from Antartica, though yes, much harder to collect than from some other locales (though honestly great fossil sites are often in terrible places like the poles or the Gobi desert.) If you google around, there are some nice sites including the British Antarctic one.
posted by jetlagaddict at 2:00 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


BBC article covering this with good info. They cover the why in the first few sentences:

It is the first time such a breakthrough has been made into one of the more than 300 sub-glacial lakes known to exist on the White Continent.

Researchers believe Vostok can give them some fresh insights into the frozen history of Antarctica.

They also hope to find microbial lifeforms that are new to science.


If life can survive down there and they get clean samples from a lake that's been isolated for hundreds of thousands or millions of years, then we could be looking at some quite unique life forms.
posted by Bort at 2:01 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Did it split off Pangea before life took off or not have much life on it at all before it froze?

Africa separated from Antarctica around 160 Ma, followed by the Indian subcontinent, in the early Cretaceous (about 125 Ma). About 65 Ma, Antarctica (then connected to Australia) still had a tropical to subtropical climate, complete with a marsupial fauna. About 40 Ma Australia-New Guinea separated from Antarctica, so that latitudinal currents could isolate Antarctica from Australia, and the first ice began to appear.

Ma = Million years ago.

Oh, and previously, for Lovecraftian geology fans.
posted by Artw at 2:03 PM on February 8, 2012


Man I can't wait to go down to the seven eleven and get a bottle of that! Will this one come in a square bottle as well or something more exotic like a hexagonal bottle?
posted by The Violet Cypher at 2:06 PM on February 8, 2012


Another decent article from The Christian Science Monitor.

It seems that it took years to drill the hole because they were taking samples as they went and had a drill designed to do that. They use a mixture of "Freon, kerosene and other hydrocarbons" to keep the hole from freezing over. They say that when they hit the water it all got pushed up and out.

There are USA and British teams doing or about to do the same type of thing, only they aren't taking samples and use hot-water drills that can reach the lakes in days. With 300 lakes to drill into, I'd expect we get at least a few pristine samples.
posted by Bort at 2:15 PM on February 8, 2012


I think part of the issue re: Antarctic fossils is that most of what you see is really thick snow and ice. Fossils would be underground, so first you have to get through all the frozen water, and then through the frozen ground. Not easy to do.
posted by curious nu at 2:16 PM on February 8, 2012


A short pentagonal bottle. Tapering at the edges, like a barrel.

And in the water, faintly glowing protoplasmic bubbles.
posted by Ayn Rand and God at 2:17 PM on February 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


No one outside of Canada believes PEI exists.

I thought it appeared once every hundred years.
posted by maryr at 2:26 PM on February 8, 2012


As planned? How the fuck could anyone have possibly known this would happen without drilling into it first? The lake is still above sea level, is it not?

That's true, but there are 4km of ice pressing onto it. I'm actually curious how they prevented a blowout. Maybe they used the thermal lance to drill a very thin hole and used the expansion of the pressurised lake water to flash freeze the bottom few hundred metres of the hole shut.
posted by atrazine at 2:28 PM on February 8, 2012


Usagizero-- on a phone and having trouble linking, but there definitely are fossils from Antartica, though yes, much harder to collect than from some other locales (though honestly great fossil sites are often in terrible places like the poles or the Gobi desert.) If you google around, there are some nice sites including the British Antarctic one.

Cool, thanks. :)
posted by usagizero at 2:42 PM on February 8, 2012


From a comment at Talking Points Memo, an interesting etymology:

"It's important to note that Vostok does not merely means "East". It is an old-language reference to sunrise, literally meaning "upflow"--the opposite of the word for West (zapad) which means "fall back, fall behind". The words for sunrise and sunset are related but slightly different (voskhod and zakat, literally meaning up-walk and roll-behind). Vostok has huge significance to Russians in terms of symbolism that is derived both from the Slavic pagan rites and from Christology. The first manned spaceflight program was also named Vostok, as was the spacecraft and the rocket used in that program. The main Russian Antarctic research base that holds records for coldest recorded temperatures on the planet is also named Vostok. The base happens to be sitting right on top of the eponymous under-glacier lake and it was researchers at this base who discovered it and proposed to drill to the lake back in the 1970s. Vostok was also the name of the first Russian ship that explored Antarctica in the 1820s. And it is also the name of a crater on Mars surface. However, the crater, along with several other elements of the mission, including the soil sample Laika, were named after some pioneering elements of the Soviet space program by the JPL/NASA team that worked on the rover Opportunity in 2005. Still, the name holds an important symbolic value to the Russians, particularly in the sense of innovation or discovery."
posted by mammary16 at 2:50 PM on February 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


Because hydraulics is a thing.

Thanks, Snarky McJackass. ;-)

Let's say you have a lake. Say it's Lake Michigan. Pile two miles of ice on top of it. Drill through the ice.

It's counter-intuitive (to me, at least) that the lake water, perfectly fine at (more or less) sea level would suddenly shoot up through the drill hole.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:16 PM on February 8, 2012


Say you take a kid's swimming pool and fill it to the brim.

Then cover it with an airtight rubber sheet.

Pile a few inches of sand on top of the rubber sheet.

Because of the incompressibility of water, you can keep adding sand until the pool or the rubber sheet fails.

But let us stop at a few inches if sand.

What do you imagine would happen if you drilled a hole through the sand and the rubber sheet?



If you want to make it more like Vostok, fill a big swimming pool with brine during a sub-freezing winter day. Cold enough that fresh water freezes but brine remains liquid.

Like making a layered cocktail, float fresh water on the brine and allow it to freeze. Continue until you have a foot or so of ice floating on the brine.

What do you imagine would happen if you drill a hole in the middle of the sheet of ice?
posted by Ayn Rand and God at 3:27 PM on February 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


Cool Papa Bell: The ice is heavy and can flex. It pushes the water through the hole with its own weight.
posted by Chef Flamboyardee at 3:27 PM on February 8, 2012


What do you imagine would happen if you drilled a hole through the sand and the rubber sheet?

That's an excellent analogy, thanks.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:42 PM on February 8, 2012


That water sounds like the most awesomely refreshing drink on earth.

Or, having been sealed up for millennia, really nasty and stale.
posted by gjc at 4:33 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Mmmm, tastes like archaea.
posted by maryr at 6:19 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Riiiiight. So they dumped a shitton of kerosine and freon down there, and they're absolutely sure they didn't screw up anywhere.
That's a fair point. And, even if they didn't screw up, I'd love to see some quantitative data on how kerosine and freon (their particular flavors of kerosine and freon) diffuse into ice at those temperatures and pressures. Even extra-dense, bubble-free, antarctic glacier ice can't be totally impermeable to the stuff - though, it may be as close as makes no difference.

But, the scale of the operation gives one hope that they may not be able to do too much damage, even if they screw up completely.

A 3 km long, 10 cm diameter bore hole holds 94 m^3 of fluid. That's 100'000 L, or 25000 Gallons, or around 3 standard (20 foot) cargo containers. That's a lot of kerosine, but at the same time, it's pretty hard to believe that a cargo container on the bottom of Baikal could do much damage, no matter what you put in it.

According to wikipedia, Lake Vostok's estimated volume is around 5400 km^3, or 5*10^12 m^3.

So, even if they just punched through and let the whole tube full of kerosine drain into the lake, the stuff would be diluted by around 2*10^-11, to 20 parts per billion (10^12) by volume. At around 0.8 kg/L, that's 0.016 micro-gram per liter.

That's tens to hundreds of times smaller than just about any drinking water standards. eg. it's 1/30 the EU guideline for "pesticides - Total". That doesn't seem too bad. Though, it's not quite the overwhelming margin one might have liked to see.

Figuring out exactly how bad freon and kerosine are for the average single-celled extremophile isn't something I know how to do easily. But, it doesn't seem crazy to claim that such a study was done with promising results.

Of course, there are some caveats here. First of all, the contamination will be localized and could have a much bigger impact on the region they're actually probing. Second, if they introduce living things into the environment as well as a bunch of jet fuel, that leads to a whole different set of concerns.

On a tiny, personal level, I am slightly annoyed at having spent several hours shoveling snow contaminated with a few liters of kerosine into metal drums which were then flown thousands of miles in order to avoid contaminating the continent, given that these people are pouring truck-loads of it into the only part of the (interior of the) continent that could possibly notice.
posted by eotvos at 7:29 PM on February 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


"20 parts per billion (10^12) by volume"
Your math is sound, but the use of 'billion' to mean '10^12' is deprecated (in English, at least); you mean '20 parts per trillion' or '0.02 parts per billion'. Which is why it's really just better to use scientific notation, as you have, mostly.
posted by overyield at 10:55 PM on February 8, 2012


I like your explanations, eotivos. But my question stems from this:

As planned, lake water under pressure rushed up the bore hole 100-130 feet pushing drilling fluid up and away from the pristine water

So the ice is over 9000 feet thick, and the pressure surge only took the crud they poured down back up a small distance from the opening into the lake. So there's still crud in the bore hole, right? Now how do they get pristine samples?

Pristine lake is no longer pristine.
posted by BlueHorse at 10:57 PM on February 8, 2012


Like making a layered cocktail, float fresh water on the brine and allow it to freeze. Continue until you have a foot or so of ice floating on the brine

OMG that's a great idea, a pressurized subzero Vodka Cocktail....probably you could use an Ice Bomb technique to generate the initial high pressure. You freeze the whole mixture and the expanding ice pushes against the still liquid alcohol...probably you would be best off with a stainless steel pressure vessel rather than a glass container...

But you need some sort of straw that doubles as a valve...I guess the simplest possible thing would be just a flexible tube with a pinch closure...
posted by Chekhovian at 2:29 AM on February 9, 2012


I sincerely hope David Attenborough was there at the moment of breakthrough to do the voiceover honours.
posted by numberstation at 4:56 AM on February 9, 2012


Lake Vostok, named after the Russian research station above it, is the largest of more than 280 lakes under the miles-thick ice that covers most of the Antarctic continent, and the first one to have a drill bit break through to liquid water from the ice that has kept it sealed off from light and air for somewhere between 15 million and 34 million years.

Emphasis mine, because that last bit is just mind-altering. No joke.
posted by 8dot3 at 7:33 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks, overyield. (The truly silly part is that I've always lived in short scale countries and use it exclusively. No idea what I was thinking above. Gotta remember not to post while exhausted, no matter how quick the comment.)

BlueHorse, that's true. I'd love to see some details about know how they're going to get a sample. One could imagine complicated multi-layer devices that seal and unseal themselves, but it sure does complicate the retrieval.
posted by eotvos at 2:17 PM on February 9, 2012


Russians celebrate Vostok victory
posted by homunculus at 1:33 PM on February 14, 2012


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