WASHINGTON—The United States and Russia are locked in another cold war, this time over a hole in the ice at the bottom of the world in Antarctica.
The Russians lost the real Cold War, but it looks as if they're going to win this one.
At issue is their plan to continue drilling a hole they began in 1998 until they poke through the ice into a large, long-buried lake known as Vostok. They've already drilled 2.2 miles down, stopping only about 100 yards from the lake, and have declared their intention to go the rest of the way next year.
Scientists in the United States and worldwide are panting to explore Lake Vostok, but they worry that the Russians are plunging ahead without taking adequate precautions to avoid contaminating the hidden waters with their drilling equipment.
Researchers think that the lake, which is about the size of Lake Ontario and more than a half-mile deep, has been sealed off from the rest of the world for more than 10 million years, far longer than humans have been on Earth. They want to find out whether living organisms are growing down there and see how they may have evolved differently from life on the surface. The findings also could tell a lot about the possibility of life on the icy moons of Jupiter or on planets beyond our solar system.
The problem is the Russians are using a drilling fluid—a mixture of kerosene and Freon that's infested with microbes—to bore into the ice. If the fluid gets into the lake, scientists can't be sure that any organisms they find were in the water already or came from the outside, said Scott Borg, the head of the Antarctic Sciences Section at the National Science Foundation. That would destroy their scientific value.
Alarmed by the Russian push, the National Academy of Sciences created a special committee to set "cleanliness" standards for drilling into lakes under glaciers or ice sheets, such as Vostok. It's not clear, however, that the Russians will pay any attention.
"The Russians aren't waiting for standards. They have decided to move forward," Borg said at the committee's first meeting earlier this month. "We have declined to participate (in the drilling). We don't feel it's ready."
The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, an international organization based in Cambridge, England, urged the Russians to wait for further studies before penetrating the lake.
"It is extremely important to be very cautious," the committee's executive director, Colin Summerhayes, said in an e-mail message. He listed two main concerns: "accidental penetration of the lake" and contaminated drill fluid seeping into the water "through tiny cracks in the ice just above the lake surface."
The Russians say they've done a successful test drilling in Greenland and that Vostok won't be harmed.
"I am convinced the concerns about possible contamination of the lake's water with the drilling fluid do not have any physical grounds," Valerii Lukin, the director of the Russian Vostok project, told Science magazine last fall.
All scientific activities in Antarctica are governed by the Antarctic Treaty, which 28 nations, including the then-Soviet Union, signed in 1959. It spells out procedures to protect the frozen continent's sensitive environment.
However, the treaty "has no enforcement provisions—only peer pressure," said Mahlon "Chuck" Kennicutt, a marine geologist at Texas A&M University in College Station.
"This is not an academic question. It's happening," Kennicutt said. "The Russians have a stated objective to be the first to penetrate the lake. This is a huge political issue for them."
David Walton, an environmental-management expert with the British Antarctic Survey, based in Cambridge, England, agreed that there's no way to enforce guidelines or standards if the Russians don't want to comply.
"We assume they will go ahead with the activity," Walton said. "Others can comment, but they cannot stop an action. There is no veto."
In accordance with their plan, the Russians drilled down another 30 yards this winter—summer in Antarctica—before stopping because of equipment problems. They plan to drill another 70 yards, put in a plastic plug, then switch to a machine driven by heat instead of kerosene to punch through the last 30 yards of ice in the winter of 2007-08.
They'll describe their latest plan at a meeting of Antarctic Treaty members in Edinburgh, Scotland, in June.
For more information online about Lake Vostok, go to www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/news/02/fslakevostok.htm
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): COLDWAR
Need to map