News Archive

posted 08/27/03

The Secret Life of Lake Vostok
Exploring life in the icy domain of sub-glacial Antarctic lake

A diagram of Lake Vostok and its surrounding environment. With new ACCESS technology being developed at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, scientists will be able to place research instruments in the lake instead of relying on remote sensing data from far above the lake. Image credit: Ravi Rajakumar

How do you study a subterranean lake that has remained isolated from the surface of the Earth for more than 35 million years without contaminating the waters in the course of your study? This is the challenge that will be discussed in a lecture by Robin Bell of the Earth Institute at Columbia University on Tuesday, September 16.

What: Earth Institute's Science Lecture Series with Robin Bell, Doherty Senior Researcher, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, The Earth Institute

Title: The Secret Life of Lake Vostok: Exploring life in the icy domain of sub-glacial Antarctic lakes
(part of the Earth Institute Science Lecture Series 2003)

When: Tuesday, Sept. 16, 4:00 p.m.

Where: Columbia University Morningside Campus, Davis Auditorium, Shapiro CEPSR

Locked beneath two miles of Antarctic ice are huge, virtually unexplored lakes -- lakes which range from the size of Manhattan to deep water bodies the size of Lake Ontario. These icy domains are believed to contain simple life forms; they closely resemble the ice-covered moons of Jupiter and the polar regions of Mars. For the past five years Bell and her team at Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory have spearheaded an international effort to study these lakes. (For information on previous Vostok research at the Earth Institute, please see

Bell and her team are currently developing a new science and technology center code named ACCESS (Antarctica: Exploration of Sub-Glacial Environments) to study Lake Vostok directly.

"The ACCESS science and technology center for studying Lake Vostok is very exciting, both technically and scientifically," says Bell. "We have learned a lot about Lake Vostok in the past five years but so far we have only used remote sensing tools from far above the lake on the ice surface. Studying these lakes with remote sensing tools only is a bit like your doctor conducting a physical using only X-rays and a MRI. The next stage of exploration is to place instruments actually in the lake. Access to the lake complimented by time series observations would constitute a major advance in our understanding of the current nature and likely response of these deep, water-filled cavities to a changing global environment."

The technology for the proposed observatory is to be built on a platform of polar-hardened instrumentation adapted for this project's extreme requirements-high pressure, low temperature and need to avoid all contamination.

Bell's September 16 lecture is the first in the Earth Institute's Science Lecture Series this fall. In addition, the series will include:

Wednesday, December 3: Dr. Mark Cane, G. Unger Veltlesen Professor Earth and Climate Sciences

Tuesday, February 3: Dr. Paul Richards, Mellon professor of Natural Sciences

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is among the world’s leading academic centers for the integrated study of Earth, its environment, and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines—earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences—and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through its research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world’s poor.