MOSCOW -- After more than two decades of drilling in Antarctica, Russian scientists have reached the surface of a gigantic freshwater lake hidden under miles of ice for some 20 million years.
Reaching Lake Vostok is a major achievement avidly anticipated by scientists around the world hoping that it may allow a glimpse into microbial life forms, not visible to the naked eye, that existed before the ice age.
It may also provide precious material that would help look for life on the ice-crusted moons of Jupiter and Saturn or under Mars' polar ice caps where conditions could be similar. "It's like exploring another planet, except this one is ours," Columbia University glaciologist Robin Bell told The Associated Press.
Valery Lukin, the head of Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, which is in charge of the mission, said in yesterday's statement that his team reached the lake's surface on Sunday.
Lukin has previously compared the Lake Vostok effort to the moon race that the Soviet Union lost to the United States. Although far from being the world's deepest lake, the severe weather of Antarctica and the location's remoteness made the project challenging.
"There is no other place on Earth that has been in isolation for more than 20 million years," said Lev Savatyugin, one of the Russian researchers. "It's a meeting with the unknown."
Lake Vostok is 160 miles long and 30 miles across at its widest point, similar in area to Lake Ontario. It lies about 2.4 miles beneath the surface and is the largest in a web of nearly 400 known subglacial lakes in Antarctica.
Drilling for the lake began in 1989 and dragged on due to funding, shortages, equipment breakdowns and severe cold. Temperatures at Vostok have registered the coldest ever recorded on Earth, reaching minus 128 degrees Fahrenheit, but the water in the lake is warmed by the giant pressure of the ice crust and geothermal energy underneath.