Thursday, July 9, 2009

Secrets Beneath the Antarctic Ice

by , There are many mysteries surrounding the Antarctic, and things are getting interesting! Scientists are just beginning to explore some of its many secrets - secrets which may affect the future of our planet.

On 12th April 2009, The Independent ran a story – Hilary Clinton urges Tougher Controls on South Pole Tourists
It is a fact that Antarctic tourism is becoming increasing popular and although there have been incidents where boats have hit trouble in the icy, treacherous terrain, there is no indication however that tourism is in any way detrimental to the region – So, it begs the question, could there be another reason/s why “the powers that be” want to keep people away from the area at this point in time?
There are a few very interesting possibilities.

The Antarctic has not always been covered by ice; scientific analysis indicates that around 40 million years ago, the Antarctic was part of a large, lush and temperate continent, known as Gondwanaland, a “supercontinent” which incorporated South America, Africa, Australia and India.
Fossil records of ostracods (a type of small seed shrimp which survived the environment up until around 14 million years ago), corals, shark teeth, water reptiles, leaves, wood and even intact tree trunks confirm that the Antarctic was once warm, hospitable and teeming with life and potentially unknown human civilisation.
In 2008, subsurface surveys surprised scientists when the results revealed evidence that a mountain range, of a similar size to the Alps, lay beneath approximately 4km of ice and snow.
Of most interest are the liquid lakes which are known to exist deep below the ice cap.

Lake Vostock, at 250 x 50 km in area and up to 2600 feet deep, is the largest of these liquid sub-glacial lakes. The fresh water is sealed within a bubble of highly concentrated oxygen beneath a 3km thick layer of ice, a unique environment, which has been isolated, totally untouched by any external environmental factors for millions of years.
The diagram above, indicates the depth that the Russians are reported to have drilled to. Traditional drilling methods to attain ice samples involved a drill bit, lubricated with large amounts of kerosene and anti-freeze. If the drill punctured into the lake water, any ensuing samples would therefore be fundamentally contaminated.
However, lake ice samples even at this depth, revealed bizarre and unique bacteria.
In 1999, John C. Priscu of Montana State University studied ice found at a depth of around 3600 metres and commented as follows "Our research shows us that the microbial world has few limits on our planet, Lake Vostock is one of the last unexplored oases for life".
On 07th March 09, The Independent reported that clean technology, designed by NASA for gathering samples in space (on Jupiter’s moon – Europa) was in place to begin drilling into the lake water.
Could the Secretary of State’s concern for tourists in Antarctica be borne from a desire to prevent contamination from “alien“ bacteria / microbes at a time when the sub-glacial bubble is burst? Is there any evidence of danger?
On 23rd April 2001, there was controversy, when in such a cold sterile environment, after intensive health screening and quarantine measures – an unprecedented outbreak of an undisclosed but life threatening condition, meant that 11 members of the American McMurdo research base had to be rescued in a daring mission, braving temperatures of -96 degrees.

At the same time one other member from the American Amundsen Scott research base (several hundred miles away) also had to be rescued.
It wasn’t only the humans who were coming down with mystery illnesses, it was the wildlife too. In December 2001, a mysterious illness began to kill off hundreds of penguins near to the Australian Mawson base .
To add fuel to rumours that something very unusual was going on in Antarctica – On 24th January 2001 a press release confirmed that the NSA – National Security Agency was to assume full control of the International scientific exploration of Lake Vostock.

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