01 Feb Beneath The Ice of Antarctica
Lake Vostok is covered by some 4,000 meters of ice. It’s been cut off from the world by the thick ice sheet for approximately fifteen million years. The water is kept liquid by the massive pressure exerted by the ice above, and possibly by geothermal heat from beneath the Earth’s crust. The Antarctic summer is the only time the continent can be regularly inhabited due to the incredible cold. In 2011 Russia began drilling to reach Lake Vostok. It’s thought that the water can offer a unique view on life that has evolved separated from the rest of the world for fifteen million years.
In 2012 I was a PhD student and was lucky enough to be able to work with a Russian scientist on examining the ice cores created by the lake drilling. Once the drill was just above the surface of the lake it would be extracted slowly, drawing the water up the borehole. This water was no longer under the massive pressure that kept the rest of the water liquid and it would freeze in the borehole, creating a plug. This plug itself could be drilled out and studied. I was one of the interns who made the trip to Antarctica in the summer of 2012. We finished our work in early February and left the next day.
Once we had the cores back to the lab we were able to safely analyze them. We’ve been keeping them frozen to analyze the dissolved particles and gasses as they are in the lake. There are some theories that the many subglacial lakes under Antarctica are connected via passageways. This would mean that we’re studying not just one, but all of the lakes under the ice. This past year we finally got the go ahead to let one of the cores thaw. We’d finally be able to analyze water that hasn’t seen the light of day in thousands of years, quite possibly far longer than that.
I cut a small section of the deepest core, the one right next to the water’s surface, into an enclosed environment and began to gradually increase the temperature above 0° C. We wanted to capture the gasses as they were let off, so we had a small balloon-like device working to capture and monitor the gas release. The device is very sensitive and can basically tell if you’ve eaten seafood in the last six months, for example. It immediately picked up on an incredibly high oxygen level in the water. We knew that there would be a lot of dissolved oxygen in the water, due to the enormous pressure above it, but the water seemed to have enough oxygen in the water to support all manner of living things. The PhD I was working with, also one of the smartest people I knew personally, and probably one of the smartest people alive at the time, said, and I quote, “if a dinosaur were alive today he could probably breathe that water to survive.” Now, I know he was joking, the age of the water was probably ~13,000 years give or take due to the residence time of Lake Vostok, but he was at the very least a little bit serious about the water having a high enough oxygen content to sustain life.
We tested several other gasses from the water and found that it contained nitrogen, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and several other trace gasses that were in such small amounts they could have been introduced by a dying lizard or fish as it swam by millennia ago. We just kept coming back to the high oxygen count. When the dinosaurs were alive the temperature on earth was much greater, and the oxygen in the atmosphere was also much higher. After the entire sample had melted we took stock of our information and finally found the first trace of life in the new water.
It appeared as though several species of algae had evolved to withstand the incredible temperature and the massive pressure of the water. It thrived in the oxygen rich water, feeding off of small inorganic particles that were carried by the massive glacier above. No light made its way that deep, so the algae were small and mostly stuck to the bottom of the glacier. It was amazing; I had the information I needed for my thesis, the PhD I was working with was surely going to win yet another award, and we were both going to be famous. But then catastrophe struck.
The man I was working with, at this point I can call him a friend, suffered a massive stroke during the following night. He stayed on life support for several days, only briefly coming to consciousness a few times. He said goodbye to his loved ones, those still living, and told me to continue my research with his blessing. He lingered for about a week before finally passing due to another stroke. I was devastated. I knew the man professionally, but in the past several years we’d spent enough time together that I regarded him as a second father in my life.
Finally after two weeks off I decided to go back into the lab. Only…everything wasn’t the same. I don’t mean that it wasn’t the same doing my research without my mentor. I understood that, my brain could comprehend it. I didn’t like it, but I know that no one lives forever. The lab had changed. Something seemed different as soon as I walked in the door. The sample looked like it was in a different spot; I was sure I’d left it in its balloon/container, but yet it was sitting now directly on our lab table. It was still in an airtight location, but I wasn’t about to just leave it there on the table, so I again moved it inside the balloon. The remainder of the core was still frozen in storage…or so I thought. We had each core separated to prevent cross contamination. It was very unlikely, but we basically went with the “why risk it?” mentality, and it paid off; the deepest core had thawed completely. There was a short in the circuitry of the refrigeration unit for that specific core. It had nearly caught fire. We had one core that was close to it, and decided to defrost a section of that core next.
While doing so we filmed it via a high speed camera for future use. We wanted to see in many frames the structure of the ancient water as it broke down and became liquid again. It was an interesting experiment until the camera appeared to be malfunctioning. The levels of dissolved organic compounds in the water were unusually high. High enough that it was as though a large creature had died in the water before it was frozen. Particles we usually found in large fresh water bodies such as the American Great Lakes were found in abundance in this sample. The camera was actually capturing sediments trapped in the frozen water at the surface of the lake; something had to have disturbed them. My supervisor, another PhD, requested permission to return to Antarctica for the summer of 2013-2014. We nearly didn’t make it due to the US government shutdown, but our project was one of the few that were spared the axe.
I arrived in January and began setting up shop at our scientific outpost. We had been partnering with the Vostok Station, but due to the shutdown and several poor coordination policies our spot in Vostok had been booked so to speak. Our solution was to use a more dated facility that had since been abandoned. Basically everything inside was frozen solid when our team arrived, but we were able to thaw what we needed and replace the rest, and within our first week we had a fully functioning station.
The borehole we were using was situated directly below the station. It made for easy access during the coldest months of the year, and was designed to be able to operate year round. The hole had been drilled prior to my arrival and was simply waiting to be cored when I landed. The core process is incredibly intricate; the drill pulls the cores up from beneath the ice and a sharp blade cuts them to a specified length, and so that they fit inside our building. Once we’ve reached the bottom core the drill uses itself to plug the hole and the water inside freezes again creating more samples from the lake.
I was to have two assistants and my supervisor, but due to my expertise on the matter, and the fact that I’d worked so much on the initial project, I was to be handling most of the work on the project. This was great for me; I enjoyed it, and I really felt like I was going to have an incredible thesis and a fantastic starting point for my post grad career.
Things were going smoothly until the drill became lodged in the borehole. The assistants were both undergrads at the university I went to. One of them wasn’t properly operating the drill and managed to get it lodged at a very slight angle in the hole. Over 4,000 meters a slight angle can be catastrophic, but the bit didn’t shear; it was just stuck. This required a specialist to dislodge. I had a few small core samples and a solid scientific lab onsite so I continued my analysis.
The technician arrived and informed us that the end of the bit was likely going to fall into the lake when he removed the rod; indicating we’d need a new drill. We’d still be able to core out the “plug” that would form, but we’d need to get a new bit for future boreholes. My supervisor decided that he would be taking both of my assistants with him once we had enough cores for me to work with. I’ve been alone before in our research base in Antarctica, so I wasn’t really bothered by this prospect. We cored out the plug and I had several thousand meters of newly frozen lake water to work with. They left the following day, leaving me alone, presumably for a period of three weeks.
The first few days after they left I didn’t have any problems. I hadn’t melted any of the samples yet. As soon as I went to melt the very first one, a sample of about five kilograms, I began to run into problems. While it was melting I had our camera on it for posterity, I looked away and the fragment had moved completely out of the frame. Just like that, maybe two or three seconds. I quickly ran into the lab to check the gear and the sample. The ambient temperature in the room was only slightly above freezing, but there was already a small puddle of water around the core on the tray. I replaced it and went back to my observation room where I’d be able to watch in relative warmth that the lab didn’t offer.
Back in the observation room I noticed that the door leading to the sleeping quarters and kitchen was slightly ajar. That was a big no-no; we didn’t like to leave compartment doors open in case of a bad storm, like the one we were having; if the outer compartment was breached the inner compartments needed to remain warm enough to support…life…well, us. Sure, we had emergency survival suits, and backup plans with backups, but I was sure I’d closed that door.
Nothing else seemed to happen that day, and I went to bed without incident. When I woke I could hear the storm hammering loudly on the outside of the building. It was intense. The weather report for the station was 90 kilometer per hour winds, and a driving blizzard. The temperature was below -60° C. It was close to condition 1 weather; the worst it can get. Luckily for me I was happily going to work on another sample today, this time extracting the dissolved oxygen and studying how it increased or decreased with depth in the borehole. That was what I was going to do…until I got into the lab. My sample was gone. The initial sample I’d melted the previous day had vanished. It hadn’t evaporated, the air in the lab was filtered and climate controlled; if any evaporated it wouldn’t have been the entire sample.
I was perplexed, and I began to think that there was someone else in the facility. It wasn’t a large base, there weren’t many places for someone to hide, but I began to see things. Right as I went into the kitchen that night for dinner I briefly saw what looked like a person running from the room as I entered. I just saw a shadow…it might have been my imagination, but it really looked like a person.
The power went out that night; the facility blew a fuse. I was awoken by bitter cold and an alarm that should have woken me earlier. I quickly dressed and went to swap the fuse with a good one. Once I got to the electrical panel I was standing at the end of a long dark hallway about forty meters long. I briefly shined my light all the way down to the end and managed to see a person duck behind the next hall. I put the new fuse in, flipped the power and tore off in a run, determined to catch my target. I rounded the bend and…nothing, no person, no surprise, just nothing. Puzzled, I made my way back to my room and tried to fall back to sleep. The storm was still hammering on the side of the building, and it was doing so with an eerie frequency; it seemed to have a rhythm to it…I began to think that maybe something was stuck to the side of the building and floundering against the wall in the extreme wind. I laid there for hours until I finally fell asleep for a few minutes before I had to wake to begin the day.
My day finally began to get better when I was analyzing a small piece of sediment that appeared to have come from the lake bottom. It was incredibly old, and actually had a small amount of algae that had accumulated on what I assumed to be the upward facing side of the particle. I was looking into the microscope when something heavy fell off of the table behind me. Startled, I quickly went to turn around and bumped my microscope, moving my sample without realizing it. When I looked back into the microscope I saw blood. Not mine, not human for that matter, it was brown, which made me think it was dead blood, but there were living blood cells that I’d never seen before on my slide! I had made a breakthrough! It was incredible. I’d discovered a type of life that had evolved on its own separated from the rest of Earth for millions of years! My jubilation, however, was short lived; how were the cells alive? They were floating in water cold enough to freeze yet remaining liquid due to the incredible pressure placed on top of it. Most living creatures don’t possess the proper coping mechanisms to live through this…let alone to produce a blood cell that can live outside the body in these conditions.
I began to quickly test the remainder of my sample, and sure enough there were more blood cells floating freely in the water. This was amazing! I was suddenly far less concerned with the odd things that had been happening around the facility. Nearly two weeks had gone by since my colleagues had left to get a new drill bit, and here I was making an earthshattering discovery that was going to lead to the next “Galapagos Islands,” except this time it was under 4,000 meters of ice in one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth. I went to bed that night under full condition 1 weather. It was bad. Warning claxons went on and off throughout the night indicating gusts of well over 100 kilometers per hour. The temperature had dipped to a record low for the month of March; -80° C. The facility could withstand this onslaught, or at least it was designed to handle much worse.
I woke around 1:00 am local time to a loud smashing sound on the side of the building. The walls were double thick and insulated by a vacuum space between the outer and inner walls, yet something was banging on it loud enough to wake me. I knew I couldn’t go outside in condition 1 so I tried in vain to go back to sleep until I again noticed an odd pattern to the banging. I’ll describe it best I can.
After it repeated a few times I thought that it might be Morse code, and had the horrifying thought that there might be someone trapped outside our station. Maybe my colleagues had returned and I was basically ignoring their pleas for help. I ran to the monitoring station where we had a CCTV camera attached to the outside that we could use to monitor the main entry door. I quickly flicked it on and found, to my dismay that it was fully iced over. I could see only a small corner of the door and ice. I was about to give up when I briefly saw a shadow on the door. Someone WAS there! I ran to get fully dressed. I was going to have to break the rules and open the door and airlock to condition 1 weather. No one is allowed outside in this weather, but if someone was already out there…something bad had happened, maybe there’d been an accident on the return trip and they’d been unable to alert me?
I ran back to the door as best as my thick clothes would allow and flicked on the light to the airlock and the outside. I opened the first door and found the airlock filled with frozen moisture that had accumulated on the walls and floor. The door was nearly frozen shut. I clipped a safety rope to my waist and then to the railing on the wall and forced the door open. If I hadn’t clipped in…I probably wouldn’t be here today; the door was ripped from my hands in a massive wind gust and I fell straight into the abyss.
After struggling to stand for a few seconds I saw that no one was there. The entryway was slightly out of the elements, but for the most part it was in the thick of the storm. I tried screaming to see if anyone was nearby and I couldn’t even hear myself. I glanced towards where my sleeping quarters were, now fully illuminated by the outside lights, and saw two sizeable dents in the wall. I couldn’t see any further than that…it was only a few meters anyways, and I decided that I had lost it. I reached for the door to shut it and head back inside when I thought I saw something in the snow.
Eyes can play tricks on you when you are staring into snow so thick that visibility is limited to a distance of a few meters in winds so severe you can barely stand upright while holding onto a safety rope. But…I could see a figure standing in the snow. That shouldn’t be possible; no one should be able to stand upright in this without support, and yet I could see all the way through the madness and clearly tell the outline of a person as I had turned to go back inside. I quickly stopped and tried to yell at them…but as I did so I moved suddenly and had to readjust my glance. They were gone. Had I imagined it again?
I had to get inside. I grabbed the heavy door and tried to drag it shut, but my feet weren’t catching on the slippery terrain. I ended up having to tie the safety rope around one of the railings on the doors and use the wall railings for leverage to pull it shut from inside the airlock. As soon as I was surrounded by an odd sense of silence. The storm was still raging outside, but suddenly my overloaded ears were ringing in the relative silence of the airlock. I made my way back to my quarters and noticed that the banging had picked up again. Something had to have come loose from the facility. It had to be stuck to the walls. That was the only rational explanation.
I forced myself to sleep. It wasn’t easy. Finally it happened. When I woke I was greeted by a call saying that my colleagues had again been delayed due to the horrible weather. They were going to have to emergently evacuate me soon if things didn’t improve. The bit was ready to be delivered, but they couldn’t access the station. The goal was to get station drill-capable again before full winter kicked in. Meanwhile, I continued my research and made one of the most amazing discoveries of the millennium.
There was tissue in one of our frozen samples. TISSUE! Our drill had hit a living creature in the water under the ice. Whether the creature survived or not I had no idea, but our drill had managed to hit it and cut a small sample of tissue. I immediately went to record my findings and report to our home base, but as I did I noticed our communications were down. I tried to connect to the internet and was greeted with the spinning wheel of lag; nothing. I was now cut off from the outside world.
As soon as this happened I heard an alarm that I hadn’t heard before. The severe weather alarms were shrill and short; this one was louder and longer. I ran to my instrument panel to figure out what it was…water was coming up the borehole into the station. That shouldn’t have been possible; the ice should have frozen all the way up to the top long ago, and created a plug. Like an artesian well the water under pressure would have a certain head to it and come so high up the tube before finally equalizing and remaining stationary. We’d calculated that distance as being less than 3,900 meters from the surface of the lake. We should have had 100 meters of safety, but when I ran into the borehole room I was greeted by several centimeters of water sloshing about. I had waterproof boots, and quickly donned them.
The borehole was open. The ice plug…gone. I looked down it with a light, and as far as I could see the ice was gone. We needed to seal the hole in a hurry. The hole was only about fifteen centimeters in diameter, but water seemed to be coming up from the depths…apparently our calculations were wrong. I began to run the drill controls. The bit itself was gone, but with nothing to impede it I could insert the remainder into the borehole and use it as a plug…the only problem was the ambient temperature in the room. I suddenly noticed that it was warm…unusually so. I had to flood the room with the outside air, and then the water would freeze in moments. There were vents in the ceiling that could be manually opened allowing the harsh air in, for just such an occasion, only we didn’t expect to have to do so in condition 1 weather. I quickly climbed up and cranked the lever opening both the inner and outer walls. The air whipped in through the slits and the temperature dropped to freezing in moments. With the drill in place the water began to solidify nicely, I was then able to remove it and let the hole freeze over as before…only I had no idea what’d caused the thaw.
I made my way back to my sample to find that it was gone. That was the last straw. My equipment was disturbed, slides moved, and my groundbreaking discovery was missing. I made to go cut a new sample and as I did I opened the door to our freezer room, which was actually normally slightly warmer than the outside temperature at present, and found…that everything had defrosted. Our 4,000 meter ice core was sloshing about on the floor of the facility slowly freezing again. My samples were ruined. I was about to storm out of the room when I noticed something lying on a shelf near the back of the room. If the ice had defrosted nothing should be there. I went to investigate…and it looked like a mummified corpse. It was black, blue and withered. Shriveled into a contorted position and it looked like it had too many limbs. Suddenly it started crawling towards me, using more than two arms, and maybe an extra leg. I fell backwards and caught myself on a shelf before I landed in the water. I was trudging through several centimeters of water to begin with, and now I was running. It moved on the shelf about waist high and climbed around the outer edge to get to the next level up. I reached the door moments before it did and slammed it, locking the sample room as I did. I opened the ceiling vents to try to freeze the room…and whatever was inside it…and then realized that this probably wouldn’t bother it much if it’d been living where I thought it had.
I ran to the crew quarters and locked myself in. I had access to the kitchen, living quarters, and sleeping quarters, without having to go near the lab. I was going to be emergently evacuated soon…I could just wait it out. Except…I couldn’t be reached via coms at present. I tried to access our communications and found that the internet was back, but that our radio communications were down. I had several messages asking if I was OK; apparently they were receiving emergency distress beacons from within our lab. The water alarm had also caught their attention. I told them what had happened and they didn’t believe me. Told me I was crazy. Maybe I was. I was alone in the Antarctic, and I’d been there for nearly a month. They likened it to an astronaut on the ISS suffering from anxiety. I managed to calm myself down a little. The CCTV’s showed nothing moving anywhere else on the station. I grabbed a flare gun and a pry bar; I had no other weapons, and slowly made my way through back to the lab. Everything seemed…normal. I received a report that they were sending an emergency transport to pick me up the following morning. The weather was going to break for the last time before full winter and they were going to deliver the parts for the drill, get me and go. I still had to pack up some equipment and whatever samples I could save.
I avoided the sample room at all costs. The lab still had a few samples under lock and key and I quickly placed those in our freezer coolers for transport and grabbed a few pieces of equipment that we’d need back at home base. I needed to visit the sample room eventually…I needed to inspect for damages and deactivate the internal thermostat. It was still on to keep the temperature regulated and I’d need to do that from inside. The room had been freezing for several hours and when I cracked the door open the water was several centimeters high frozen on the door. I carefully trekked across to the far side of the room and turned the thermostat to nil; letting the outside air control the temperature for the winter. I carefully watched the waist high shelves where our ice cores had once lain and made my way back to the door as quickly as I could. When I was nearly there I caught movement and looked up.
There it was, on the very top shelf, frozen nearly solid. Reaching for me and the door as best it could, but the ice was finally freezing it to where it couldn’t move. I swung wildly at it with the pry bar and it managed to grab it out of my hand. I slipped and caught myself on the handle. The thing tried to slink down the shelves as it had earlier, but its previous grace was gone and it was cracking ice off of its arms as it moved. I slammed the door and locked it once again. I didn’t have a camera on the inside, but I could hear its stiff movements…the ice breaking from its limbs as it moved. It was like ice fishing; the water had finally frozen the fish.
As I slowly backed away from the room I heard a light humming sound and realized that something had closed the vents from the inside. I was done. I returned to my quarters and locked the doors yet again. That night before the storm abated it struck again, hard. I could hear the same weather alarms, and finally the banging on the walls again. It seemed different that night though…almost defeated.
The banging eventually subsided and I never actually fell asleep. The weather slowed down shortly before morning, and once it was truly morning, it wasn’t actually light outside, but 8:00 am our time, I was finally close to leaving. My colleague radioed in, yes my radio had finally came back; apparently the storm was blocking the communications to some degree, he was less than thirty minutes away. After a short wait with all of my gear ready to walk out the door I was alerted to our main airlock being opened. I thought I’d have received another call, but maybe he made it early. I went to check and there was no one there. No snowmobile, no vehicle, no people. Puzzled, I stood around for a moment until I saw footprints leading away from the facility, and into the snow. There seemed to be too many of them…and they were bare footprints…the gait seemed to be off. A fresh snow was falling, and I was about to take a picture of them when I again realized…no one would believe me.
I went back inside and received a burst transmission from the Russian Vostok Station. It was static-filled and mostly incoherent. They must’ve known that I didn’t speak Russian because the voice was speaking heavily accented English. It was hard to decipher, but I finally could make out a few words. “We…tried…warm.” It didn’t make sense at first so I replayed it several times, eventually I realized they weren’t saying “warm,” but instead…”warn.” Startled I deleted the message and backed away from my computer until I heard the airlock door open again. I grabbed a different pry bar and went to investigate. This time it was my ride. I loaded the sled and got out of there as quickly as I could.
The Russians in the Vostok Station had been carrying out a similar experiment to ours using a different cored location a few miles away. Their schedule was a few weeks ahead of ours, however, and I can only assume they came to the same conclusion as I did.