Russian Scientists May Have Drilled into Previously Untouched Subglacial Lake

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NASA / Handout / Reuters

A satellite view of Antarctica is seen in this undated NASA handout photo obtained by Reuters Feb. 6, 2012

International scientists teeter between excitement and concern after reports from Russian news agency RIA Novosti that Russian scientists have drilled into the untouched Lake Vostok, 2.2 miles below the surface of Antarctica.

The lake, discovered in the mid-1990s, is the world’s third largest and could hold a vast amount of scientific data, both about how lakes function below the surface of the ice in Antarctica and about the possibility of discovering previously unknown life forms. That is, if the kerosene, Freon and other chemicals used in the 20-year drilling process didn’t leak into the water and ice and contaminate the area.

(PHOTOS: Life beneath Antarctic ice)

Crews have tried to reach the lake for over two decades, but the going is slow, with the limited mobility of transportation in and out of the area and machinery unable to work most of the year due to the astonishingly cold temperatures.

While no formal announcement has yet been made about the breakthrough, scientists around the world say that if the Russians have indeed tapped into the lake, the body of water could completely change the way research gets conducted in Antarctica. Learning about conditions in lakes glossed over with ice could also help inform scientists about conditions on other planets.

The U.S. and Britain will join the ice drilling in search of subglacial lakes this year, as the search for information continues on how our planet’s largest reservoir of fresh water (as ice and subglacial lakes) changes and reacts to climate conditions. With more than 200 lakes beneath the ice, there’s plenty of drilling left to be done.

PHOTOS: Ice Land