July 22 – Too Darn Cold

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

Right now, most of North America is in the grip of a record-setting heat wave. Forget frying eggs on the sidewalk; right now, the chickens are laying the eggs already fried. (Then again, they do that all the time in Colorado.) And odds are you’re thinking about a trip to someplace cool. In that case, may I suggest lovely Lake Vostok?

A cross section of the ice above Lake Vostok and a map showing where the Pole of Cold is (Image courtesy Nicolle Rager-Fuller / NSF)

A cross section of the ice above Lake Vostok and a map showing where the Pole of Cold is
(Image courtesy Nicolle Rager-Fuller / NSF)

Located in Antarctica’s “Pole of Cold” (yep, there’s a pole for everything), Lake Vostok is home to a research station located on the thick ice on top of the lake. How thick is the ice? Let’s put it this way: the research station sits on the ice more than two miles above sea level but the lake’s surface is 1/3 of a mile below sea level. All of that ice is there for a reason. Because Vostok Station is located in the middle of Antarctica, cold temperatures are just a fact of life. And those cold temperatures allow ice to build and build and build over hundreds of thousands of years; the ice over Lake Vostok represents more than 400,000 years of snowfall and gives climatologists an incredibly detailed look into the past. Of course, that assumes that they can survive the present.  In 1983, Vostok Station in Antarctica recorded an air temperature of 128.6 °F below zero.

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

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

Exciting as all of that ice is (think of the snow cones!), it is actually the least interesting thing about Lake Vostok. The most interesting thins is that all of that ice has sealed off the lake for some 15 million years, which means that it is possible that it is host to fish and other critters that have evolved separately from those everywhere else or (and here’s the exciting part) it may have completely new critters that will tell us if we might find life elsewhere in the Solar System.

The two sides of Europa, one of Jupiter's ice-covered moons (Image courtesy NASA)

The two sides of Europa, one of Jupiter’s ice-covered moons that may have life like that at the bottom of Lake Vostok
(Image courtesy NASA)

About three years ago, scientists did manage to drill into the lake and a second drill hole was completed last year. 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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