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Winter Scuttles Effort to Reach Ancient Arctic Lake

A bird rests over a glacier in Antartica, 09 November 2007. AFP PHOTO/Rodrigo ARANGUA (Photo credit should read RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)
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Getty Images

In a race against the clock, Mother Nature won. A Russian team that has been toiling around the clock to pierce through to a sub-glacial lake in Antarctica is calling it quits - for now - because of harsh winter weather that's freezing their hydraulic tools.

The sub-glacial Lake Vostok is located at the bottom of a 12,000 foot-thick ice sheet in Antarctica but the project leaders reported the evacuation of its team 29.53 meters short of the final destination. They plan to resume their work next spring, when temperatures allow them to again use their drills. Lake Vostok has some of the lowest recorded temperatures found anywhere, with the thermometer going as low as -129 degrees Fahrenheit.

So why bother freezing your jewels while boring holes in a mountain of ice? That's because the potential scientific payoff is huge. Lake Vostok has remained iced over for the last 15 million years and researchers hope to find unknown or ancient forms of life once they break through.

In 2003, scientists discovered that the concentrations of gas in the lake water were much higher than expected. That unexpected high ratio of gases trapped under the ice producd a gas-driven "fizz" when water was released. Even more intriguing, last year researchers announced they had discovered microbial world hidden beneath the lake's ice. At the time, Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center, who co-authored a research paper on the topic, noted that microbes within the liquid water habitat of Lake Vostok offer clues to the viability of life on other planets, where similar harsh environments are found. One candidate was the frozen ocean subsurface on Jupiter's moon, Europa.

As he announced the suspension of the drilling project, Valery Lukin of Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, the organization which oversees the expedition, echoed a similar sentiment, noting that "it's like exploring an alien planet where no one has been before. We don't know what we'll find." He made his comments to the AFP.