Michael Studinger, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Lake Vostok lies in the heart of the Antarctic continent hidden beneath 4 kilometers of ice (see map). As big as Lake Ontario in North America, Lake Vostok is one of the world's biggest freshwater lakes. Lake Vostok has been covered by the vast Antarctic ice sheet for up to 25 million years. The lake was named for the Russian research station that sits above its southern tip - a place where in 1983 the temperature fell below -129°F (-89°C), the coldest ever recorded temperature on Earth. More than 145 lakes have been identified beneath the thick Antarctic ice sheet. Most of these lakes, covered between 3-4 kilometers of ice, are several kilometers long (see map). One of these lakes, Lake Vostok (left), is an order of magnitude larger than all other known lakes (slide show).

LA Times article about my field work at Vostok (lots of pictures)

Flash animation of subglacial Lake Vostok ()

click to download high resolution image

The Discovery of Subglacial Lake Vostok
In the 1960s, Russian scientists hypothesized water beneath the ice sheet based on results from seismic soundings. In the 1970s, a joint US-UK-Denmark airborne radar mapping project discovered areas with flat reflections from the bottom of the ice sheet suggesting water beneath the ice. The full size of Lake Vostok was first revealed in 1996 by the flat ice sheet surface mapped from the European ERS-1 satellite (see picture on the upper left side or click here).

Microbial Life in Ice
Bacteria found in refrozen lake water at the bottom of the Vostok ice core could be part of an indigenous ecosystem below that's been living in the cold, dark waters for millions of years. Lake Vostok has been isolated from open exchange with the atmosphere for several million years. No one knows how any organism, cut off from air, sunlight or any apparent source of life-sustaining energy, could survive in its frigid waters or under such crushing pressure of more than 360 times the atmospheric pressure at sea level.

Subglacial Lake Vostok is the closest terrestrial analogue to Europa, the ice covered Jovian moon, and to a Neoproterozoic snowball Earth. The 4-kilometer-thick ice sheet goes afloat as it crosses the lake, just as ice sheets become floating ice shelves at the grounding line. The subglacial environment represents one of the most oligotrophic environments on Earth, an environment with low nutrient levels and low standing stocks of viable organisms. If life thrives in these environments it may have to depend on alternative energy sources and survival strategies. A flash animation illustrates the basal freezing process and the flow of the ice sheet over the lake: (Flash animation of subglacial Lake Vostok).

Aerogeophysical Survey December 2000 - January 2001
Between December 2000 and January 2001 an aerogeophysical survey around Vostok was carried out as part of the NSF award for PIs Bell and Studinger. The work was a National Science Foundation sponsored project at Lamont. The airborne geophysical survey within this program was carried out by the Support Office for Aerogeophysical Research (SOAR), a National Science Foundation facility of the Office of Polar Programs located the at the University of Texas. The initial results of the survey are described in Studinger et al. (2003), followed by many publications listed below. The Los Angeles Times featured this work in an article on March 4, 2001. A reprint of the Los Angeles Times article, with many of my pictures from the field work, can be found on The Columbia Earth Institute web page.


Published Papers related to Subglacial Lakes:

Bell, R.E., Studinger, M., Shuman, C.A., Fahnestock, M., Joughin, I., Large subglacial lakes in East Antarctica at the onset of fast-flowing ice streams, Nature, Vol. 445, 904-907, doi:10.1038/nature05554, 2007.

Christner, B.C., George Royston-Bishop, Christine M. Foreman, Brianna R. Arnold Martyn Tranter, Kathleen. A. Welch, W. Berry Lyons, Alexandre I. Tsapin, M. Studinger, and John C. Priscu, Limnological conditions in subglacial Lake Vostok, Antarctica, Limnology and Oceanography, Vol 61, No 6, p 2485-2501, 2006, e-link.

Bell, R.E., Studinger M., Fahnestock, M.A., and Shuman, C.A., Tectonically controlled subglacial lakes on the flanks of the Gamburtsev Subglacial Mountains, East Antarctica, Geophys. Res. Lett., 33, L02504, doi:10.1029/2005GL025207, 2006.

Tikku, A.A., Bell, R.E., Studinger, M., Clarke, G.K.C., Tabacco, I., and Ferraccioli, F., The influx of meltwater to subglacial Lake Concordia, East Antarctica, Journal of Glaciology, Vol. 51 No. 172, p 96-104, e-link, 2005.

Bell, R.E., M. Studinger, A. Tikku, J.D. Castello, Ancient Ice and Subglacial Lake Environments: Lake Vostok as an Example, In Life in Ancient Ice, edited by J.D. Castello, and  S.O. Rogers, Princeton University Press, p 251-267, ISBN: 0-691-07475-5, 2005.

Tikku, A.A., Bell, R.E., Studinger, M., Clarke, G.K.C., Ice flow over Lake Vostok, East Antarctica inferred by structure tracking, Earth Planet. Sci. Lett., 227, 249-261, doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2004.09.021, 2004.

Leonard, K., Bell, R.E., Studinger, M., and Tremblay, B., Anomalous accumulation rates in the Vostok ice core from ice flow over Lake Vostok, Geophys. Res. Lett., 31, No. 24, L24602, doi:10.1029/2004GL021102, 2004.

Studinger, M., Bell, R.E., and Tikku A.A., Estimating the depth and shape of subglacial Lake Vostok’s water cavity from aerogravity data, Geophys. Res. Lett., 31, L12401, doi:10.1029/2004GL019801, 2004.

Studinger, M., Karner,G.D,  Bell, R.E., Levin, V., Tikku, A.A., Raymond, C.A., Geophysical Models for the Tectonic Framework of the Lake Vostok Region, East Antarctica, Earth Planet Sci. Lett., 216, 663-677, doi:10.1016/S0012-821X(03)00548-X, 2003.

Studinger, M., R.E. Bell, G.D. Karner, A.A. Tikku, J.W. Holt, D.L. Morse, T.G. Richter, S.D. Kempf, M.E. Peters, D.D. Blankenship, R.E. Sweeney, and V.L. Rystrom. Ice cover, landscape setting, and geological framework of Lake Vostok, East Antarctica, Earth Planet. Sci. Lett., 205(3-4), 195-210, doi:10.1016/S0012-821X(02)01041-5, 2003.

Bell, R.E., M. Studinger, A.A. Tikku, G.K.C. Clarke, M.M. Gutner, and C. Meertens, Origin and fate of Lake Vostok water frozen to the base of the East Antarctic ice sheet, Nature, 417, 307-310, doi:10.1038/416307a, 2002.