Even in the best-case scenario, polar drilling is risky, complicated by roving icebergs, lethally cold temperatures and long periods of darkness. And then there are other problems, as the latest Russian attempt to drill into Antarctica’s Lake Vostok—at 10,000 square kilometres one of the world’s largest sub-glacial lakes—shows.
Discovered in 1993, Lake Vostok is under four kilometres of ice and provides a paleoclimatic record dating at least 400,000 years back. Experts believe that undiscovered ancient microbial life exists in the unique environment. But last week, Russian scientists announced that the expedition had to be stopped short because of the encroaching winter. However, the drilling team didn’t want to lose the progress that they’d made—they were just 29.53 m short of their goal—and so dumped kerosene down the 3720-m-long borehole to prevent it from freezing.
Other scientists now worry that the purity of the lake has been ruined, and that the unique ecosystem that lies beneath the ice could be irreversibly damaged. Sadly, it’s not the first time Lake Vostok has been contaminated. In a 2007 Russian drilling attempt, when a drill bit broke off, scientists poured anti-freeze into the hole. That expedition was abandoned completely.