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What’s Beneath Antarctica’s Ice? No, Not Hitler’s Remains

An aerial view of the world's coldest continent, Antarctica. Credit: NASA. 

Legend has it that in the final days of the Third Reich, loyalists smuggled Adolf Hitler’s remains out of Berlin along with those of his paramour, Eva Braun. The deceased were later ferried by U-Boat all the way down to a secret Nazi base in Antarctica, where they were, depending on which version you believe, interred or used for cloning experiments. Maybe a thousand identical copies of the mass murderer walk among us!

Or maybe the legends about Nazis in Antarctica are as every bit as ridiculous as they sound (though not as ridiculous as this movie). The New York Times had a nice rundown on the silliness a few days ago,  but while Hitler did have a fascination with Antarctica (at one point in the late 1930’s, German planes dropped swastika-bearing stakes from planes in attempt to claim part of the continent as “New Schwabia”, but the rest of the story is more like the plot of a Mel Brooks movie.

There is something hidden in Antarctica, though, and it’s pretty mind-blowing in its own way. Some 12,000 feet below one of the coldest spots on the surface of the frigid continent, trapped between the ice above and bedrock below, lies a system of some 140 freshwater lakes. Last week, after years of inching closer and closer, Russian scientists broke through into one of the biggest: subglacial Lake Vostok is as big as Lake Ontario, but three times as deep, on average — and it could hold a trove of scientific secrets.

The National Ice Core Laboratory (NICL) has thousands of 1-meter long sections of ice cores taken from Antarctica. Here an Assistant Curator of the NICL holds a section of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS). Credit: Geoffrey Hargreaves/NSF.

That’s appropriate enough: unlike Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union’s intentions in founding Vostok Station, near the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility, were entirely peaceful (by terms of the Antarctic Treaty, they had to be). At first, it was mostly a meteorological station. Then scientists began extracting ice cores, looking for clues to ancient climate and what they might tell us about manmade climate change in the future.

But thanks to observations with ground-penetrating radar, among other things, scientists began to realize that there was water under all that ice, warmed by heat from the underlying bedrock and insulated by the ice blanket above. Not only that: it was clear that the lake had been out of touch with the outside world for at least 15 million years. If there were living organisms trapped there, they might have evolved along all sorts of bizarre and novel paths. The only way to find out was to drill all the way into the lake and dredge up samples — but without letting the kerosene drillers used to keep the shaft unfrozen contaminate the pristine water.

In fact, the drill reached within a few hundred feet of the lake all the way back in 1998, but it was only recently that the scientists agreed on an anti-contamination strategy: they filled the bottom of the hole with inert, harmless Freon to keep the kerosene at bay, then melted their way through the last few feet with a heated drill bit. When they finally struck Lake Vostok, the water, under enormous pressure from the two miles of ice above, pushed its way into the shaft and froze, creating a plug that will hold until a sampling probe can be brought in next year.

The prospect of finding a lost world of unique bacteria and — maybe — more complex creatures as well is exciting enough for biologists. But astrobiologists, who ponder the possible existence of life on other worlds, may be even more excited. Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, is now known to sport a globe-spanning ocean, covered with a thick layer of ice. And if life is common in the universe, which many astrobiologists suspect, then Europa could be a perfect place to look

Before NASA drops billions to mount a mission across interplanetary space, though,  it will undoubtedly prefer to get its feet wet, so to speak, by finding a mini-Europa somewhere on Earth. And Lake Vostok, as the agency has known for years now, just might be that place

Admittedly, it’s not quite as funky as secret Nazi bases and cloned Hitlers. But for those with at least one foot in reality, it’s pretty intriguing.