A team of Russian researchers is close to breaching Lake Vostok, a prehistoric lake that’s been trapped deep beneath the Antarctic surface for the last 14 million years. Vostok is the largest sub-glacial web of more than 200 lakes, which are hidden 2.5 miles (4 km) beneath the surface.
Some of these lakes were formed when Antarctica was much warmer and still connected to Australia. The lakes are supposed to be rich in oxygen, making them oligotrophic, including some elements in much higher quantities than in typical freshwater lakes. The high gas concentration might be due to the enormous weight and pressure of the continental ice cap.
If there is still life in Vostok, it will be some kind of extremophile, which are life forms that have adapted to survive in extreme environments. Adaptations would include the ability to withstand high pressure, constant cold, low nutrient input, high oxygen concentration, and the absence of sunlight.
It is thought that the conditions in Vostok are similar to the ones found on Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus. Finding life in such conditions would strengthen the hope of extrasolar life, and life in extremely harsh conditions.
Antarctica’s summer is going to end soon and the researchers are running out of time. Temperatures will drop as low as -112°F (-80°C), grounding planes and trapping the team if they don’t act quickly. The team already missed their chance last year. If they miss it again this year, they’ll have to try again next year. Russian engineers are planning to venture into the lake itself, assisted by robots.