Have you ever wondered what it would be like to explore one of Jupiter’s moons without ever leaving Earth? Or what would happen to your body under a monstrous amount of pressure like this?
If you are determined to do both then your best bet would be to plunge into Lake Vostok, in Antarctica. But first, you’ll need to driill through 4 km (2.5 mi) of thick ice just to get to this unworldly ecosystem. And its weight squeezes the water with 350 times the atmospheric pressure at sea level.
What would happen if you dive into this freezing lake? How would your body react once you reach the water? What kind of special gear would you need? What kind of life would you encounter, if any?
Before trying on your new drysuit, there are a few things you’ll need to know. This antarctic lake’s environment has similar characteristics to Jupiter’s moon, Europa. And diving into its water would be the closest you can get to being in outer space while you’re still on Earth. Pretty exciting, isn’t it?
Also, this body of water is 15 million years old. So whatever you’d find under there, keep in mind, would be pristine and, ancient, so you’d need to be careful not to damage anything. All right, ready? Let’s go.
Here you are, surrounded by a team of scientists, mechanics, engineers, cooks, and field assistant at the Vostok Russian Station near the South Pole. There’s ice as far as you can see. It’s easy to think that you’re standing on Jupiter’s moon, Europa. Fortunately, the temperature here might only be around -89 °C (192 °F) but on Europa it would never rise above -160 °C (-260 °F). Brrrrr. Glove warmers, anyone?
First of all, you’d need to break through the ice, all 3.7 km (2 mi) of it. Ask the scientists where to drill the access hole. The lake, first spotted in 1960 by a Russian pilot, is huge. It’s smaller than Canada’s Lake Ontario, but it’s one of the largest subglacial lakes in the world.
And one end of Lake Vostok is shallower than the other. So you’d want to explore the deep end, where there could be more to find. Ok, great, you found the perfect spot. Now, let’s do this.
You might wanna sk the engineers if they have something more efficient. Now that the hole is ready and you have your drysuit on, what else would you need? Well, how about a submarine to withstand the pressures of this deep underwater environment, similar to the one that James Cameron used in the Mariana Trench?
Yup, this is probably a great idea. Your body wouldn’t be able to handle that kind of pressure. But, if there is life, in lake Vostok, how does it survive the immense pressure? We’ll come back to this a bit later.
You know what else you’ll need? Yup, a light. You’re going several kilometers under the ice, so, there’s no light down there.
Now, you’re descending into Lake Vostok. The ice around you is different from what you’re used to seeing. It’s bluish because the crystalline structure of dense ice absorbs every color of the spectrum except blue.
There are 3500 kinds of DNA in this ice. And, after collecting some ice samples just above the dome, scientists sequenced all the genetic material at once. It revealed the presence of microbes, gases and nutrients. These are signatures of biological activity.
Advanced analytical technique revealed 3500 new organisms trapped in the ice. That’s good news for you. You’re likely going to see something.
When you would finally reach the water, it’s only -3 °C (27 °F). But it doesn’t freeze because of the pressure of the ice above it. Now remember to turn on the light. You are about to discover a unique ecosystem that might use minerals present in the lake and sources from the underlying bedrock instead of the Sun’s energy. That’s pretty special.
Fungi and single-celled organisms surround you. And as you move deeper into the lake, you start to feel warmer. The water is heating up. Geothermal heat is coming from the Earth.
Here you would encounter thermophiles, crustaceans, and creatures that appear to be both freshwater and marine animals, indicating that the lake was connected to the ocean. So far, all of the species you have seen are relatively small. But is there anything else lurking in the darkness?
Well, according to Russian scientists, there might be an octopus-like entity swimming in these waters, better known as Organism 46B. Scientists declared that this mollusk could paralyze you with its venom from 45 m (150 feet) away.
It is also said to be a shapeshifter, that’s completely able to mimic other creatures. There is a rumor that it killed a scientist using a human disguise. Breathe, it’s probably just a fairy tale. At least, you hope it is.
If you did dive into this lake, you would most likely feel pain. The pressure of the water would squash the air pocket in your ears and the air sacs in your body. So, how do the creatures living here manage to thrive in this environment?
Deep-sea creatures have small molecules called piezolytes that prevent the other molecules, such as membranes and proteins, from crushing under pressure. That’s pretty neat. Are you recording everything? You would definitely want to share this footage with your friends. And if this adventure tickled your curiosity and you want to go even further, have you ever thought of diving in a pool full of methane?
- “Jupiter Moons”. 2021. NASA Solar System Exploration.
- “NASA’s Europa Clipper”. 2021. NASA’s Europa Clipper.
- “Europa”. 2021. NASA Solar System Exploration.
- “Antarctic Subglacial Lake Exploration: First Results And Future Plans”. Siegert, Martin J., John C. Priscu, Irina A. Alekhina, Jemma L. Wadham, and W. Berry Lyons. 2016. Philosophical Transactions Of The Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical And Engineering Sciences 374 (2059): 20140466. doi:10.1098/rsta.2014.0466.