July 21 – Too Low For Zero

Today’s factismal: The lowest recorded naturally occurring temperature was 128.6 °F below zero; it happened at Vostok Station in Antarctica in 1983.

When it comes to low temperatures, there’s chilly, down right cold, and “Whoa!”. And in 1983, Vostok Station in Antarctica definitely fell into the third category. Then again, even when it is warm at Vostok Station, it is down right cold. That’s because Vostok Station is located in the middle of Antarctica where cold temperatures are just a fact of life.

The monthly average high and low temperatures for Vostok Station, Antarctica (Brr!)

The monthly average high and low temperatures for Vostok Station, Antarctica (Brr!)

But it turns out that those cold temperatures may have an upside. You see, Antarctica is covered with glaciers. And some of those glaciers just happen to cover lakes that are kept liquid either by having exceptionally high salt contents or by being near a geothermal heat source; these are known as Antarctica’s subglacial lakes. And the largest known subglacial lake just happens to be very near Vostok Station, which is why it is called Lake Vostok.

The Lake Vostok drilling campaign (Image courtesy Nature)

The Lake Vostok drilling campaign
(Image courtesy Nature)

You may have heard of the lake, because it has been in the news a lot lately. A science team spent more than a decade drilling through the ice to reach the lake. Their hope is that, because the lake has been sealed off by glaciers for some 15 million years, they will discover either fish and other critters that have evolved separately from those everywhere else or (and here’s the exciting part) they will find completely new critters that will tell us if we might find life elsewhere in the Solar System.

At this point, there have been some indications that they did discover lots and lots of critters but the question of how new they are is still undecided. (Read: lots of biologists are arguing about it.) What is known for sure is that it is amazing that anything could actually live in a lake that is in perpetual darkness, under a pressure equal to 350 atmospheres, and is so full of oxygen and nitrogen that the water would bubble if it were brought to the surface.  And the other thing that is known for sure is that once the critters from Lake Vostok are identified, they’ll make their way into the Encyclopedia of Life. It is a free on-line resource that lists every known animal, plant, protist, or politician (wait; I’ve just been informed that politicians are not considered to be life forms). If you’d like to check it out, look here:
http://eol.org/

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