- A subglacial lake discovered four kilometres below the
South Pole has captured the imaginations not only of scientists but also
of conspiracy theorists and alien-encounter types.
- NASA wants to use Lake Vostok to test equipment for a
mission to Jupiter. Microbiologists want to study life in extreme climates.
- Environmentalists halted exploration to keep the lake,
believed to have the purest freshwater on Earth, free of contaminants.
But when the drilling stopped the speculation intensified, particularly
via the Internet, that scientists were about to expose the world to a deadly
virus for which humans have no antibodies.
- And when several researchers became sick this year, requiring
airlifts out of Antarctica, the cries of a government coverup reached a
- Now some, inspired by the release of the movie Atlantis:
The Lost Empire, believe Lake Vostok provides evidence that the lost city
lies under the South Pole, a victim of polar shifting and/or plate tectonics.
- Here is an excerpt of a popular posting in several Internet
- "If the Great Flood was caused by the Earth shifting
its axis, as appears to be what actually happened, where what used to be
the North Pole ended up near the equator, then Atlantis didn't sink. It
simply relocated to the South Pole."
- To put it simply, Lake Vostok is cool.
- For those unfamiliar with the story, a lot of hard science
has gone into the exploration of Lake Vostok.
- The Russians have had a base at the site since the 1950s,
but it was not until two decades later that scientists suspected there
was something beneath it. Since 1989, scientists and engineers have been
drilling the ice sheet above Lake Vostok to study the Earth's past climates.
Drilling was abruptly halted when researchers hit a layer of refrozen ice
120 metres thick.
- That led to speculation, later confirmed, that more than
3,600 metres below the base, there is a 23,000 square kilometre subglacial
lake, roughly the size of Lake Ontario. The water is unusually warm, probably
a little below 0C, compared with -55C at the surface.
- U.S. scientists studied the refrozen samples and found
bacteria, which could suggest that a whole ecosystem different from ours
-- an alternate ecology -- may have existed for thousands, maybe millions,
- "That's what we know and it's not much," said
John Priscu, a Montana State University microbial ecology professor who
conducted the study.
- "We know there's life down there, and it's a bizarre
environment under three miles of ice, and it's been there a long time.
That's pretty wild."
- Mr. Priscu is leading another study this summer, so the
picture should become clearer in the next year or so.
- The unanswered questions, along with the remoteness of
Antarctica and the hazy politics of that faraway continent, have increased
the already intense speculation.
- The Atlantis Blueprint, by Colin Wilson and Rand Flem-Ath,
proposes that the people of Atlantis had created a thriving maritime society
that is the proto-culture of societies today.
- The basis of Mr. Flem-Ath's research is an ancient map
depicting Atlantis that he found in a book while doing research for a screenplay
about hibernating aliens.
- "The map is a map of Atlantis, but if you take off
all the labels, and you compare it to the Earth's surface, it's very similar
to Antarctica," he said. "That was the first thing that got me
on to it."
- His work has often been used to promote Lake Vostok theories,
but his research locates the main city of Atlantis elsewhere.
- The speculation about the lake does not surprise Ray
Browne, founder of the Popular Culture Association and professor emeritus
at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, the United States's only department
devoted to studying the reality-in-flux of coolness.
- "When there's an interest, you've got to feed that,"
Mr. Browne said.
- "Someone has rediscovered Atlantis outside the Pillars
of Hercules, inside the Mediterranean, in the Caribbean, under the South
Pole and everywhere else ...
- "They want to find it, we want to find it, and if
we never do, it's still tremendously interesting, because we all have a
little archaeologist in us, and we're yearning for the Garden of Eden."