The unofficial comment came this morning in my inbox from the American office of the Russian Embassy: They did it!!!
Attached was a link to the state-sponsored Russian news agency RIA Novosti, which quoted an unnamed source as saying:
Yesterday, our scientists stopped drilling at the depth of 3,768 meters and reached the surface of the sub-glacial lake.
The news came as a huge relief after weekend speculation grew over the current status of the Russian drill team as they raced against time to reach Antarctica's 20 million-year-old, ice-covered Lake Vostok or be forced to wait another year to try again.
Fox News was the first to call out the radio silence from the Russian drillers:
"No word from the ice for 5 days," Dr. John Priscu — professor of ecology at Montana State University and head of a similar Antarctic exploration program — told FoxNews.com via email.
Fox News was following up on an earlier status update Priscu provided the Washington Post on Feb. 1:
Priscu said Russian scientists on the scene e-mailed him last week to say they had stopped drilling about 40 feet from the expected waterline to measure the pressure levels deep below. Priscu said he expected that they were also sending down a special “hot water” drill to make the final push, but a message from the Russian team Monday reported “no news.”
Enter an explanation on what happens to the moisture in your eyes, nose, and throat when exposed to the temperatures the Russians were facing and it's no wonder concern began to mount:
“When you’re outside, it’s extremely cold — minus 30, minus 40,” microbiologist Dr. David A. Pearce told FoxNews.com. “If you left your eyes open the fluid in them would start to freeze. Your nostrils would start to freeze. The moisture in your mouth would start to freeze,” he said.
Indeed the only thing that doesn't start to freeze is satire: "International Space Station picks up SOS signal from missing 'alien lake' drilling crew."
But while conditions on the ice are indeed life-threatening, Priscu and Pearce never lost faith that the Russians were safe:
DNews: Is the recent lack of contact with the Russians a cause for concern?
Pearce: "No concerns whatsoever."
Priscu: "What they are doing is very, very difficult and has never been done before. I am sure that progress reports are low on their priority list at the moment."
If only Iridium satellite phones could make tweeting status updates easier.
However it seems even contact and updates won't stop the speculation. Have a look again at today's article from RIA Novosti:
With the current events happening at Lake Vostok, an old theory saying that German Nazis may have built a secret base there as early as the 1930s, has resurfaced.
Oh? Indeed, Nazi paranoia is apparently still a very big subject in Moscow. And it's sad that the first report of the scientific break-through of the polar engineers at Lake Vostok, a feat that has been more than 20 years in the making since drilling in the region began in 1989, is steeped in old World War II conspiracy theories from the Russian state-sponsored news agency.
There is much to be concerned about over the techniques and environmental consequences the Russians have taken in using kerosene and other drilling fluids first and a melt drill second in order to reach their goal of breaking the waterline. But these arguments were raised in 1998, two years after the discovery of the lake, and the drilling was suspended for two years in order to better address the situation. Other investigations into subglacial lakes have the foresight now in order to commence drilling using only melt drill technology.
The physics should come into play as predicted and push the lake water into the drill/melt hole where it can freeze over the next 10 months, without causing contamination in the lake itself.
I for one am looking forward to the results of what they may find next year. Of course in the meantime we can all speculate on what may be lurking in the lake water, hidden from all humanity — until now.
Diagram showing the structure of the Lake Vostok system (LDEO via @caleb_scharf)